Edmonton dumpster divers are finding value in trash

by | Jan 23, 2023 | Arts & Life

With over 147,000 tonnes of waste collected in 2021 alone, Edmonton is a vibrant, formidable city of consumption. Some Edmontonians are fighting back against the waste by ‘dumpster diving’- risking arrest and injury for a chance to find treasure in another person’s trash.

Dumpster diving is the practice of foraging through dumpsters to find food and potentially valuable items to keep, donate or sell for profit. Many regular divers are houseless individuals hoping to make it through another day. However, due to the rising costs of living and the environmental risks associated with urban waste, some activist groups also see dumpster diving as a way to combat industrial consumption. 

Fighting back in a small way

XR, or Extinction Rebellion, is a global activist group that uses non-violent direct action to address the urgent climate crisis. While local offshoots of the movement now exist across 86 countries, including Canada, the group originally assembled in London on Oct. 31, 2018, by announcing their Declaration of Rebellion against the UK government. 

“I joined XR Edmonton and found people who had similar goals,” said Reddit user wokeupsnorlax, a former dumpster diver. “One of those people was looking for a roommate and I decided to join. That house introduced me to dumpster diving. The idea was to reduce waste, save money and fight back against capitalist consumerism in our small way.” 

“I personally believe food is a human right. Before colonizers came to Canada, this country was a magical permaculture forest garden. The Indigenous did such an amazing job at creating a permaculture paradise and we f*cked them and their land unbelievably. I also like the fact it reduced my carbon footprint by taking recyclable plastics we got from the trash and properly recycling them.” 

Making it through the day

23-year-old Aaron Gordy has been dumpster diving since he was 10. As a child growing up in poverty, he would often rummage through dumpsters with his younger brother. He says it started with bottles and cans to sell at the bottle depot, but eventually, they found food and “cool stuff” to bring back with them. 

“I never went into the dumpster with any expectations, like you don’t just go ‘Wow! I hope I find some cheese today.’ You just go in,” said Gordy. “One time we found six or seven perfectly good loaves of bread, wasn’t past the expiry date or anything, so you take those home. Why spend money on food when you’re at the poverty line when it’s right there available to you?”

According to Statistics Canada in 2018, one out of every eight Edmontonians live in poverty. The number includes roughly 25 per cent of single adults, 36 per cent of single-parent families, and families of four that make about $43,000 or less after taxes. 

From left to right: a Swiss M49 or M51 greatcoat, a Dutch tropical field jacket and a Pattern 82 Canadian tanker jacket. Several vintage army jackets found clean and in good condition. Photo by Aaron Gordy

“When I was growing up… pretty much all of the immigrant families’ kids would dumpster dive, and a lot of the older people would do it just to do something,” said Gordy. “I don’t know if they were doing it for the same reasons we were doing it… it was not uncommon to see someone going through the dumpster, looking through the stuff.”

Diving risks

Garbage cans and any materials found within are technically considered private property, so divers can be charged with trespassing if found. Although Gordy and wokeupsnorlax find that the rule is rarely enforced, they offered a few precautionary measures for those interested in dumpster diving.

“Find a few places that are close and walk or bike. It’s more discreet and doesn’t attract attention… If you do drive, drive to a place nearby and walk. Most dumpsters aren’t in an easy place to park anyways. If you’re driving in winter, try to scope out a few local spots on Google maps. Do a quick drive during the day and check it out.” said Reddit user wokeupsnorlax. 

Divers recommend wearing clothes such as long pants, long sleeves, sturdy shoes and gloves to protect your body from injury or infection. 

“It helps to bring a friend to help and to stay safe if you’re diving at night,” added wokeupsnorlax. “Bring a headlamp, your hands will be full.” Gordy also advises against taking food in the winter, as perishables get “harder to visually tell what’s good and what’s bad” due to the snow and slush surrounding them. 

Despite these risks, many dumpster divers still swear by the practice. 

“If you’re looking in the right places, you can find anything dumpster diving. I’ve got a bunch of bikes, a bunch of cool winter coats, I’ve got Lego that I found,” said Gordy. “You can find anything that you want if you’re just willing to look hard enough.”

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