Dumpster Diving: Garbage Spirituality

Published in Geez Magazine launch issue | Fall 2005 | Circulation: 1,500

Photo: David P Ball

Photo: David P Ball

A SOCIALLY AWKWARD MOMENT. A blue dumpster, me draped over the metal edge, notepad in one hand, pen in the other. Lindsay, festooned in pink and blue toque, emerges with a head of lettuce. Soon we move on.

John leads us up a steep dark hill, past overturned shopping carts, around puddles and over concrete blocks. Lindsay whispers to duck. We drop and wait for a car to pass. Every shadow threatens. I’m nervous, and excited. We dart to the garbage bin. As my foot kicks into a garbage bag full of mushy green peppers, I feel like I’m pushing my way through a similar lining in my brain. I am uneasy about immersing myself in garbage, and especially about being seen doing so, but there I am.

What surprises and inspires me most is the ritual of the dive. Lindsay often prays a blessing before she sets out for the night. “We’re modern hunter-gatherers,” she says. “It comes with the whole philosophy.”

“The dumpster gods and goddesses will provide for you and there are things you can do to make them take care of you. That’s why you can’t take everything from the dumpster. It’s like an offering. And leaving stuff for other people makes the gods happy.”

I’m skeptical. But there is some kind of comforting logic to the idea that our needs can be provided for, that we are cared for by a spirit-force. After all, for tens of thousands of years, human cultures have believed the Earth is alive with spirits. In many traditions, these spirits provide for our survival and command humble respect for the process of life.

Elements of death and resurrection, common to many religions: what could be more ‘risen again’ than the Second Coming of a limp carrot? How about the rhythms of the natural world: divers know which disposers toss which trash on which days of every week. And of course, the journey we’ve embarked on this night is a collective venture – ­the beginnings of a seeking community.

Our unlikely community of three includes John (30-something, has a “good job,” lives with his wife and two-year old daughter), Lindsay (24-year old university student, with $4 in her bank account dumpster diving has become more and more a necessity for her), and myself (willing, if only barely, to risk broken needles and a bit of rat shit in the search for marginal excitement and maybe even some redemption).

For me the dumpster ritual serves to redeem me from the rituals of waste I enact so often in my life. In the garbage it goes. Packaging, food that didn’t get eaten on time, something I’m too lazy to recycle. I dispose of my guilty excess. The funerary nature of the waste ritual means once it’s in the garbage I can let it go. Forever. But not really.

And so, we waste. We fear what we waste. We fear that what we waste will somehow come back to haunt us.

At the end of our redeeming night in the alleys of Victoria, John’s trunk contains flower bouquets, melons, oranges, apples, plastic cutlery trays, lettuce and bread.

“My main thing in terms of appeasing the dumpster gods and goddesses is bringing new people – taking someone new out and showing them,” Lindsay says, handing me a wilting bunch of tulips with mock romance. “The gods love that.”

Perhaps this how religions are born.


[Sidebar] Ethics of the dive:

  • Take only what you need.
  • Keep the area clean (or cleaner) than when you found it.
  • Leave some food in the dumpster for others.
  • Don’t shit where you eat
  • If you’re caught, never identify your getaway car (if you have one).
  • Share what you harvest with others.
  • Avoid selling dumpster finds, unless desperate. (“You have to give it away for free, because it’s a resource – natural resource.” Lindsay)

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