People and Places

Get over the ick factor — Dumpster diving culture offers a wealth of finds and more

“There’s nothing like the feeling of uncovering a dumpster packed full of goods.”

Kayla Blais is ecstatic about waste or, rather, what most people presume to be waste. Kayla and her comrade-in-arms, Michelle Alexander, are dumpster divers, searching the city’s parking lots and alleys for goods that can be eaten, shared, and saved from the landfill.

Besties Michelle (in green) and Kayla (in pink) pursue trash treasure during a spring outing. Photo: Jamie Kronick
Besties Michelle (in green) and Kayla (in pink) pursue trash treasure during a spring outing. Photo: Jamie Kronick

Since 2015, these women have been collecting everything from over-the-counter medication to makeup, non-perishable goodies to vegetables (an oversized bin brimming with perfect asparagus elicits the strongest emotional response from this writer).

“There’s stuff being thrown away that still has a year left before its expiration date. Even so, most products are still good for a week or two after said date,” says Kayla while holding up a big haul of double-bagged candy and fibre bars, gum, and other snackable goods.

“It’s just a shelf date,” says Michelle, who shines a flashlight on the proceedings.

Photography: Jamie Kronick
Photography: Jamie Kronick

This is probably the weirdest nocturnal rendezvous I’ve taken part in — years of alcohol-induced teenage mischief included. Our photographer seems to be on the same page, but for our divers, this is just another “night out on the town.”

Photography: Jamie Kronick
Photography: Jamie Kronick

Kayla — a confident, kinetic character — swings in and out of dumpsters as if spring-loaded. There’s an intensity to the Ottawan that makes even small talk seem vital. Conversely, Michelle is quiet and sympathetic — a comforting presence and the yin to Kayla’s yang. She lives in London, Ontario, and tells me there is far more competition as far as trash troubadours are concerned in her hometown. Both are waste-conscious packrats, their homes bursting with finds from dustbins far and wide.

Photography: Jamie Kronick
Photography: Jamie Kronick

The two met online three years ago and instantly connected. It wasn’t long before they convened in person. Michelle introduced Kayla to diving — a teacher-and-student situation, if you will — and each party started making trips to see their “bestie” so that they could get their kicks together.

Photography: Jamie Kronick
Photography: Jamie Kronick

The two share their finds and stories through Facebook groups, where members warn of recalls, share tips, trade goods, and gossip over hot finds. While writing this piece, I’m seemingly welcomed into the group — virtually and otherwise — with open arms.

Kayla and Michelle are part of a real community, sharing a hobby that’s as much a recreational rush as a rejection of consumer culture, not to mention a means of reducing one’s ecological footprint. It’s not just for packrats, bohemians, or those who need to submit to a frugal lifestyle. It’s a way of turning one’s back on a consumer culture that, provincially, generated 9,165,299 tonnes of waste in 2014 alone (Stats Canada has yet to release figures for subsequent years).

Playing Dirty

Initially, I have my reservations about the idea of dumpster diving — sanitary concerns many readers are likely having already and a stigma that’s difficult to dispel when one runs with raccoons.

“Loads of perfectly good products are thrown out to make room for new shipments. You’d think most companies would have some sort of insurance policy or means to donate excess goods,” says Kayla.

Our divers cite PetSmart as the worst culprit, saying the store tosses out pounds of perfectly good dog food. Indeed, at one location of the ubiquitous chain store, I see that a foul-smelling, unidentifiable goop has been poured across countless slashed sacks of canine chow. Michelle calls this an “all-too-common” attempt at thwarting divers. I can’t help shaking my head at the hypocrisy of the company’s “Buy a bag, give a meal” 2017 campaign, which donates proceeds from pet food purchases to feeding dogs and cats in shelters.

They’re not the only ones playing dirty.

That night, I’m exposed to chic clothes, stylin’ footwear, and home decor that seem to have been sabotaged to thwart garbage pickers. When it comes to food, corporate liability is the alibi, but it’s difficult to view cases like those above — products not subject to expiration — as anything but ugly and mean-spirited. Why should one person’s trash not be another’s treasure?

Photography: Jamie Kronick
Photography: Jamie Kronick

Kayla and Michelle have taken the cause farther by donating much of their find. They put together care packages of toothbrushes, toothpaste, and over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and hand them out around Ottawa shelters. “I can’t tell you how many people I was able to help in this small way during the winter. Still, you can be fined or arrested,” says Kayla.

“The health unit can go after you because it violates safety standards — they see the situation as ‘It was thrown out, it’s dirty.’ Vermin are a scapegoat too. We’ve never had a problem with such animals. It’s generally very clean.” Michelle adds.

Photography: Jamie Kronick
Photography: Jamie Kronick

“I avoid handing out goods when there are police officers on foot nearby,” says Kayla. “Our shelters are in a poor state. I don’t want to get in trouble for helping, but if it comes down to it, I’ll take a ticket, I’ll go to jail for trying to help somebody. If our government and society won’t help them, then I will. So will Michelle.”

Many seem to think that dumpster diving is illegal, but it’s perfectly fine to do so on public property. Most dive during the evening simply to avoid stares and unnecessary confrontation.

As Kayla and Michelle show me the ropes, I see pounds of perfectly sealed produce double-bagged and given the royal treatment with their own dumpsters, separate from the messy food waste we non-divers inherently fear when we think of sorting through garbage.

Hell, I start entertaining the viability of filling out one’s cupboard with the fruit of these oversized snack boxes. But how can one not worry about getting sick, even when scoring “the good stuff”?

Both Kayla and Michelle are quick to emphasize that they’ve never heard of anyone becoming ill from recovered goods, but they do reiterate the importance of looking out for recalls (members of the online diving community are quick to warn each other of these) and trusting one’s nose.

We finish up by sifting through our found treasures. Two hours later, Kayla’s trunk is packed — but they aren’t finished. They will dive into the wee hours, riding a high that only dumpster divers know. Before I can tie a garbage bag, they’re off to their next score.