Waiter, There's A Fly in My Trash: Why Dumpster Diving Will Save the Planet
In Aimee Bender's novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose Edelstein has a curious relationship with food. She can taste emotions. It's an overwhelming nuisance. Rose knows when her mother is feeling lost after a bite of her pie; when the local cookie baker is in a rush, Rose can taste it; a friend's turkey sandwich was made with so much love that Rose feels grateful and jealous with each bite. Rose finds cool respite in metallically sterile, machine-squeezed foods. Globbing up her meals with factory ketchup, Doritos and Pringles, the lifeless ersatz void cleanses her palate from the bitter taste of human souls.
That food carries an emotional flavor is not fiction to filmmaker Jeremy Seifert. Director of the multi-ward-winning documentary, Dive!, Seifert takes a look into the 96 billion pound pile of food being sent to landfills every year in America.
Seifert's relationship with food was not unusual. He bought it, ate it, and what he didn't finish or forgot in the back of the refrigerator was tossed out for garbage trucks to haul off to that mysterious place where discards disappear. He wasn't aloof about the world's problems, but like most of us, he just didn't really know how big of an issue an overripe banana was.
While friends were visiting Seifert several years ago, they returned to his home one evening with large bags full of food. They spread the contents out all over his kitchen floor, snatching up what looked to be—and was—perfectly edible, but something was abnormal about this trip to the market. They had been to a Trader Joe's in Los Angeles, but it was well after midnight and the store closed at ten. This food came from the store's dumpsters.
Seifert is bright. There is a soft humbleness to him—the kind you hope a politician would have without faking. A husband and father of three, generosity and sweetness oozes out of him, but with a patient, protective alertness you'd expect in a good father or big brother. He is not pretentious. He is not arrogant. He's the nice guy who looks like he'd ride a skateboard to work wearing a backpack full of home made treats for everyone in the office, just 'cause. This type of kindness towards others, I imagine, is what might have made that night staring at a kitchen floor full of trash a life-changing moment for Seifert—a realization that there was enough food there otherwise destined for a landfill to feed a lot of people, a lot of hungry people.
A film student at the time he learned about perfectly edible food being thrown away, Seifert embarked on a $200 budget film project for class. Could he feed his family out of a dumpster and make an entertaining movie about it? And more importantly, could he get answers as to why this food wasn't being routed to the many hungry people who need it?
Seifert says that an average of 854 million people around the world go hungry every year. Yet on any given day, any given dumpster is loaded up with perfectly edible food, even during a recession. There are certainly plenty of food banks and relief organizations that would pick it up and distribute it, but repeated attempts by organizations have been met with red tape and bureaucracies while tons and tons of food rot just out of reach.
Grocery stores typically pull products one or two days before expiration. This means there are gallons of milk and juice, eggs, meats and even packaged and canned items, still perfectly edible, being pulled off of shelves and tossed to the trash. Along with wilted lettuce, spotty peaches or better-looking-yesterday broccoli, a dumpster diver can find a week's worth of meals in one dive. In fact, during the filming of Dive!, Seifert had to purchase an extra freezer. He couldn't eat the food fast enough, and he could not bear to throw it…away.
The day before this interview, Los Angeles City Council voted in favor of making all official city departments come up with policies so that leftover food from programs and events can go to hungry people in the same fashion as recycling is now a common practice. There are more than one million hungry people in Los Angeles county. Seifert was at the press conference and says, "This is exactly the type of practice we need to see happening." It gives Seifert a visible lightness in discussing the morose topics of homelessness, world hunger, environmental degradation and corporate greed. "In ten years, zero waste will be common practice," he says, smiling. "It's just a matter of education. Wal-mart now has a policy in place that ensures all of their food waste is accounted for."
Wal-mart is indeed a leader on many fronts, but Whole Foods Market—considered to be the iconic leader of progressive grocery retail by initiatives including becoming the first certified organic grocery chain, the first chain to sell only cage-free eggs, and they were the first retail chain to ban plastic grocery bags—still does not have a corporate policy on food waste. Neither does Trader Joe's, the California chain and most targeted offender in Dive!. In the film, Seifert sends repeated letters to their headquarters, approaches store employees, and finally gets a meeting at their corporate office, but to date there's still no chain-wide food donation policy.
The questions are confounding. Seifert says it can feel paralyzing. Why won't stores donate their food? Isn't it a tax-deduction aside from being the ethical thing to do? Seifert explains that even though it might seem like an easy task, corporations would have to use resources, which equal bottom line profits, to coordinate food donations. In other words, the losses corporations take by throwing food in dumpsters is less than it would cost them in employee labor to ensure that edible food goes to starving bellies instead of stuffed landfills.
Manufacturers often credit retailers for spoils or losses, too. For example, if a store was encouraged by a sales rep to purchase extra product and didn't sell through it all before expiring, the manufacturer may reimburse the store for their losses. Or if a distributor didn't rotate their stock and sent short-coded product, they'll also reimburse the store and tell them to pitch the "spoils." Which brings up another question: Why aren't manufacturers more involved in keeping their food out of landfills? Big brands now have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, they support charitable causes, buy renewable energy credits, reduce packaging sizes; why not help get the food to people? "That would be ideal," says Seifert. He's referring to the concept that manufacturers create some sort of agreement with their retail partners stating that in order to sell their products, the retailer must guarantee that expired or near-expired items go to food banks instead of into dumpsters. If that kind of pressure seems unlikely, just imagine a Safeway without Cheerios or Lunchables, or a Whole Foods without Stonyfield Yogurt or organic lettuce. The power of corporate brands is drastically significant, especially in this country, and while grocery stores certainly can—and have—opted out of selling a brand or product, they know the risks they face in taking leaders off of their shelves.
Many retailers make much of their money off of costly slotting fees they charge big-named brands, and not from the register ring. It's why Coca Cola, Nestle and Proctor & Gamble have retail ubiquity—they're the best known because they dominate the aisles by paying for that real estate, not because they're the best tasting or best quality. In fact, the opposite is more likely the truth. They've conditioned customers by limiting or buying the competition (Nestle produces approximately 6,000 brands). Many of these well known brands are loaded with unhealthy ingredients, toxic chemicals and are packaged in excessive and non-recyclable materials. Plus, if the economy continues to stagnate, retailers may be even more indebted to their manufacturer partners and their big marketing budgets that allow them to offer volume deals, promotions, coupons and incentives, which drive customers to their stores. In the case of retailers like Trader Joe's who focus primarily on 3rd party manufacturing for their dominant in-house brands, the risk of losing a private label manufacturer can be financially devastating.
"You need to eat trash." It's Seifert's selling point, if he's selling anything. He assures me he's never once gotten sick from eating out of a dumpster. It's different than eating from a restaurant's dumpster, too. He clarifies the difference in pulling wrapped, packaged items out of trash bags that were just sitting on a store shelf for sale from the more familiar image of eating trash, one of a homeless person digging through a pile of day old donuts or greasy hamburgers that have been sitting under heat lamps for hours. Eating trash sounds a bit like humble-pie-pride-swallowing—washing down leftovers left over from our birth into industry and post WWII excessive behaviors that led us to our present day quandaries over where to send waste that landfills can't absorb, and what to feed our hungry children whose parents can't find work.
"A lot of dumpster divers have sent me hate mail," he says, "they feel like I'm ruining it for them, making it too risky." While the film largely centers on the practice of dumpster diving by detailing the three main rules: first to the dumpster gets first dibs, never take more than you need and leave it cleaner than you found it; it also discusses the risks: in many cases it is technically trespassing, employees can put locks on the dumpster if they know it's frequented, friends and family may react harshly about you eating out of a dumpster, etc. Seifert's hope though is that the urgent message in the film will help bring about a sea change. "If zero waste can be as widely accepted as recycling," he says, "we can feed so many hungry people, alleviate pressures we're putting on our environment and on our wallets." He's certainly striking a chord with environmentalists. Landfills are land-full. Fresh water resources are dwindling. It takes 2500 gallons of fresh water to raise one pound of beef (in comparison, potatoes take 2 gallons of water per pound), making it seem like quite a crime to send a steak out to pasture. Uneaten food waste can use even more fossil fuels than it took to get to the store to be transported to landfills. According to EnviroLiteracy.com, one trillion petroleum based plastic bags are used worldwide every year, many of those for trash.
People and film festivals around the world are embracing Dive! The film has won nearly a dozen awards so far, and food giant, White Wave (maker of Silk soymilk), recently screened it for their employees. Seifert says more screenings and events are coming, too. They continue to enter festivals, and conduct showings. His efforts to get Trader Joe's to adopt a food donation policy make his eyes twinkle. His hopefulness in humanity is inspiring and unrelenting, leaving viewers with much to consider, and not a single moment to waste.
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