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I went dumpster diving in Melbourne, here’s how it went

WORDS BY KAYA MARTIN

“I hopped in. A mountain of buns and loaves of bread squished beneath my feet. There was so much food that it felt almost hedonistic.”

There are a lot of things I expected to do in my life. Rummaging through a trash can for snacks like a well-dressed racoon was not one of them. But it seems that life, like a dumpster, is full of surprises.

People generally have one of two polarised reactions to the idea of dumpster diving. They’re either disgusted and horrified and they take a few steps away from you, or they think it’s a completely sensible pastime. I’ve always flirted with the latter group. 


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For one, my pet peeve is food waste. I hate having to throw out gooey grapes because I left them in the fridge for too long. I’m also not overly discriminatory with the things I put in my body (a stranger’s leftover onion rings? Don’t mind if I do). Plus, I love free stuff. 

As a famous philosopher once said, “one man’s trash is another man’s come up”. So when my curiosity finally got the better of me, I enlisted the help of some friends-of-friends who knew the good spots. 

What does one wear to a dumpster dive? I put on my balaclava and then took it off – dumpster diving sits in a legal grey zone, so there wasn’t too much of a risk of getting caught. I was torn between jeans (for coverage) and a skirt (for agility) but ultimately settled on the skirt. I grabbed a pair of bubblegum pink rubber gardening gloves and headed out the door.

Though we’d never met before, Tom*, Dana*, Celia* and Harriet* were extremely lovely and welcoming. Tom cooked spaghetti and we talked about the evening’s plans. They told me they go out every few weeks and they always have dinner together first – I assume having a full stomach helps heighten the standards of what is deemed to be edible. 

We loaded up the car with milk crates and piled in. Our first stop was a gourmet grocer, one of their most reliable spots. As we drove through the night, there was an excited energy in the air and it felt like we were on our way to a party. We pulled into the parking lot.

The moon shone overhead like the beam of my iPhone flashlight, which I aimed toward the green bin. It smelled of fresh oranges. When we pried open the lid, which had been left unlocked, we found out why – someone had emptied the juice machine and it was filled with rinds. This made for a sticky diving experience. Unphased, Dana climbed in and I handed over the gloves. 

One thing I (naively) hadn’t expected was all the digging and sorting. I thought you could just lift up the lid and reap the rewards. Instead, we were splitting bags, tossing them around and checking what was underneath.

The contents of a bin fall somewhere on a scale from certified garbage (anything opened, rotting or too mushy) to suspiciously normal. We collected about a crate of fresh produce. The biggest score was two bunches of unbloomed lilies. Harriet and their partner Celia were stoked about that, as they had told me earlier that their favourite things to find were flowers and juice. 

As we sanitised our hands and got back in the car, I asked Dana about the best thing they’ve ever found while dumpster diving. They told me they once found an entire chocolate cake, which sounds pretty nice. The next garbage bin was behind a chain grocer. When we lifted the top, there was a bounty of produce as far as the eye could see.

I hopped in. A mountain of buns and loaves of bread squished beneath my feet. There was so much food that it felt almost hedonistic. It was like being a kid with a big sack of candy on Halloween. I grabbed a long, white turnip and used it as a shovel. We collected carrots, kiwis, avocados, oranges, and bunches of asparagus.

There were too many apples and onions for us to take, all near perfect except for a few bruises. We laughed with glee, pulling rare finds like ochre and eggplant from the rubble. Afterwards, we used a shopping cart to bring the items back to the car. As much fun as I had had in the bin, I couldn’t help but feel a bit depressed about the state of the world.

I was always taught to finish my plate, but what’s the point of any of that if big companies are throwing out so much good food every day? I was seeing with my own eyes how flawed and unsustainable our system is.

Tom wanted to hit another bin for snacks as everything we had so far were fruit and veggies. We headed to another big chain and found the trash empty except for one bag left on the cement. Inside, Tom and Dana found a can of tuna that they fed to a stray cat.

Among the other goods were crackers, cookies, Sweet Baby Rays BBQ sauce, gourmet salad dressing, and something called dog yoghurt (I wonder why that was in the trash). When Dana tried to throw the bag back in the bin, it split open dropping garbage everywhere. This is how I became familiar with ‘bin juice’ – an evil liqueur that soaks everything left in the garbage. 

The bin juice was definitely not my favourite part. Thankfully, when we brought everything back to Tom’s and gave it a quick wash in vinegar, the smell went away. After we divided it all up and said our goodbyes, I left with a bag of groceries so heavy that it made my shoulder ache. Not bad, if I do say so myself!

When we were driving home, Dana told me something about dumpster diving. They said that after you do it, you’ll never look at a garbage can the same way again. Instead of seeing it as something yucky and off-limits, it becomes a potential treasure chest. Unsurprisingly, I now like checking under bin lids. You never know what you might find, whether it’s a chocolate cake or a week’s worth of veggies.

*Names have been changed

For more on dumpster diving in Australia, head here

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