UW News

August 31, 2011

UW anthropologist explores Seattles Dumpster diving community – with video

News and Information

Its not for everyone – especially not those with strong gag reflexes or early bedtimes – but Dumpster diving for food has become a thriving, legal pastime for certain Seattleites hoping to save some money and rescue food from going to waste in landfills.

And for a UW anthropology graduate student, Dumpster diving is a way to explore how society deals with surplus food and how cultural assumptions of what is appetizing lead to perfectly edible food being thrown out.

David Giles has gotten to know the Seattle Dumpster diving community and is studying how they re-purpose extra food. He is an occasional Dumpster diver and refers to various Dumpsters by what he often finds in them, like the tofu Dumpster or the burrito Dumpster, the noodle Dumpster or the juice Dumpster. Another favorite of his is the chocolate Dumpster.

What other foods has he retrieved from Dumpsters? “You name it,” he said.

Watch a short video of a Giles’ recent Dumpster dive in Seattle.

“Dave is investigating new forms of social organization that are only possible today because of the way the global economy works,” said Daniel Hoffman, UW anthropology professor and Giles doctoral adviser. “For any of us who study non-state social networks, whether they are activist groups, religious movements, online communities, or so-called terrorist organizations, there is a real challenge in tracking how ideas spread, how values are shared and challenged, how change happens.”

The spread of ideas through social networks is central to Giles work, Hoffman said, and his findings could make contributions to other fields.

Giles is studying how a counter-culture of Dumpster divers provides food for those in need. The laws regulating this can be confusing.

On one hand, retrieving food from Dumpsters is fine. “My understanding is that as long as theres not a ‘no trespassing sign and the Dumpster is unlocked, then its not theft to take someones garbage,” Giles said. In his experience diving, hes never had any problems with the law.

But restrictions on food-sharing in public spaces can limit how Dumpster divers distribute their finds. In Seattle, for instance, there seems to be openness to food-sharing programs and some programs have worked out ways to reclaim surplus food before it reaches the Dumpster. The city provides a guide to providing meals for the homeless, which designates an outdoor meal distribution site downtown. The site is beneath Interstate-5 at 6th Ave. and Columbia St. But Giles said that it can be hard for people who are homeless to get there. The guide also lists organizations that provide free meals and when and where the meals are available.

Giles is taking a closer look at food-sharing laws in Seattle and other U.S. cities to gain a clearer picture of how Dumpster divers who share food can work within the law. He hopes that his study will help shape policies allowing divers contribute to what he calls “alternative economies” in Seattle and in other cities.

Giles research includes observations of local grassroots organizations that distribute food in Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, New York City and Melbourne, Australia, where he was born and lived until he was 9. By immersing himself in Dumpster diving communities and interviewing more than 30 people who dumpster dive, he has learned about the ethos of the network.

Dumpster divers tend to follow certain guidelines and etiquette for Dumpstering, as they call it. Through social networks, Dumpster divers alert each other to full Dumpsters and pass along the best times to go to particular Dumpsters. Individuals will take only what they need, and leave the rest for future divers.

“Theres an ethic of mutual aid, which I think characterizes a lot of the communities that have Dumpster diving in common,” Giles said.

Dumpster divers make a point of leaving the Dumpster as clean or cleaner than they found it. This is a way of not upsetting store owners and of preserving the resource for future divers. Theyre also careful to heed no trespassing signs and to avoid locked Dumpsters.

In part of his dissertation, Giles examines how market forces contribute to surplus food. “Its a delicate calculation between demand, production cost and turnover,” said Giles, who has talked to people involved in producing food to find out why they throw it away.

For example, bread is one of the easiest foods to obtain from Dumpsters, Giles said, because its shelf-life is limited. Bread is cheap to make and at high-end bakeries fresh loaves can sell for at least twice as much money as day-old loaves, which are still perfectly good. The balance for the store owner becomes “how much more you can make on the shelf space” by having higher-priced goods, Giles said.

It may seem strange for Dumpster diving to be a subject of graduate study, but those who do it take it very seriously. Ele Chupik, a Seattle Dumpster diver, wrote this in an email: “It’s so important to me that Dumpster diving not be presented as a novelty, but for what it is: a necessity for hungry people, a positive response to the immense problem of wasted food, and an alternative to participating in and contributing to the food industry.”

She is concerned that calling attention to Dumpster diving could trigger increased monitoring of Dumpsters and more legislation, which would make it more difficult to retrieve surplus food.

For Giles, the next step is to look more into the legalities of the distribution of food waste in Seattle and compare them with the policies in other cities. While he believes that Seattle does relatively well in its efforts to reclaim and redistribute food that would have been wasted, it could improve its policies of food-sharing.

“There is always useable food in the Dumpster and there are always people who are hungry,” he said. “Id like my research to encourage policy makers to develop new, innovative ways to incorporate homeless folks into society and the economy.”