Downtown Brooklyn dumpster-diving tour shows the face of food waste


Former Spanish teacher Janet Kalish, who has been the face of “freeganism” in New York for more than a decade, digs into a black garbage bag, taking out what she says is good food that never should have been put in the trash.

On a recent Tuesday, she and two other freegans explored Downtown Brooklyn’s street-side commercial garbage. Bare-handed, the group patted down the first bags to detect which ones contained food. Then they dived in.

“Sometimes people dumpster dive just for survival … and just to save themselves money but they don’t necessarily all have a plan about trying to stop all the waste,” Kalish said.

Swapping food shopping out for lengthy nocturnal explorations into garbage bags, “freegans” hope to accomplish their philosophy: to limit their participation in the current economy and consume minimal resources.

Four million tons of waste ends up in landfills every year in New York City. Almost a third of that is food waste and commercial businesses contribute a significant amount.

Britt Nelson, who has been dumpster diving for about five years and considers herself mindful of sustainability, said she finds satisfaction in diving into waste.

“We are in an insanely wasteful society,” she said. “It’s really nice to not have to spend as much money when we just don’t need to spend as much money as we do.”

Twice a month, the freegans gather to tour the city’s waste. However, everyone can dumpster dive as much as they want for themselves.

The food quality control is performed using simple common sense: if it smells bad, if the seal is broken or if it looks bad, it belongs in the trash.

Before one of the 200 private carters who pick up commercial waste in the city came by, clear bags outside a Montague Street storefront showcased chopped Brussels sprouts, potatoes, kale, green beans and bell peppers.

The store was still open and Kalish asked the group to move fast to take some of the food, as it can be risky for them if grocery store workers catch them binning. Some stores don’t allow dumpster divers to take their waste because they don’t want to be known as the place where people can find leftovers, she said.

Although certain city businesses like restaurants, hotels, stadiums or food manufacturers are required to separate organics by law, small businesses like grocery stores and bodegas are not yet required to do so.

After an hour and several bags filled with sushi, prepared foods and produce later, the group made one last stop on Court Street for dessert. Packaged bread, pastries, muffins, cupcakes, croissants and baguettes were all recovered from the trash bags.

Kalish called it a typical night.

Besides feeding the group, the evening proceeds would be used to create a feast for a dozen people.

But why is this food in the garbage? It was the question that arose many times during the tour, particularly when an opened bag showed a bouquet of fruits and vegetables.

“There is nothing wrong with this fruit, it’s not old, it’s not spoiled, the store never waits for the food to go bad. The store throws it out long before it’s bad, which is what people don’t really realize,” Kalish said. “They imagine something different, that we are getting bad food.”

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects groceries, wineries, supermarkets and restaurants that donate food to nonprofit organizations. But many businesses have policies that require them to throw out products that are past their sell-by dates or aren’t fresh, to avoid liability if a customer gets sick.

Nevertheless, nobody in the group has fallen ill after eating food from the trash.

Besides storage, package and delivery of the food to nonprofits costs money, another reason so much commercial food ends up in the landfill.

When it comes down to it, the problem with food waste is about policy, according to Christina Grace, CEO of Foodprint Group, a business that helps companies achieve zero waste.

“Until organic separation and composting is the same or cheaper than the cost of disposing up your garbage, we’re in kind of trouble,” Grace said at a conference on the future of waste. “The problem is trash is cheap and until trash is not cheap, we’re not gonna make the moves that we need to with organics and I think that’s a challenge.”

Grace was referring to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to reduce organic waste sent to landfills by 90 percent by 2030.

For Kalish, education and awareness are essential.

“If we lived in a society in which the priority was compassion, was helping people live with nutrition … then this wouldn’t be wasted, but that’s not the society we live in, we live in a society that’s profit-driven and it’s all about making money.”

See for a video of the dive.

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