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on the morality and societal perception of dumpster diving

Over at Concrete Gardener Jo has posted about scoring a bunch of apples out of a dumpster by her house (and using them to make an apple crisp, of course!). We're a little jealous: after I read Waste and told Leah all about it, she took a few trips round to the local grocery stores to see if she could do any dumpster diving of her own. No luck: they're all locked away. Plus, there's that pesky sense of unease that comes with taking things out of the trash.

Not that we're worried about getting sick from food that's been thrown away: the whole point is that the stuff grocery stores are chucking is perfectly good, for the most part. And when it comes to the vast majority of what we eat—bread, fruits and veggies, and dairy—a quick look and a sniff is all you need to tell if something is off. The real problem is that, as much as we rationally feel that making use of cast-off food makes personal economic sense and is even a positive social force, we've been culturally brought up to feel on the one hand that trash is private property and on the other that we shouldn't degrade ourselves by taking handouts of any kind. And then, even if we do manage to find a full open dumpster—shouldn't we leave the bounty for someone who really needs it?!

All three of those objections came up when we were chatting to Jo about her apple find at Thanksgiving. They're tough problems: even though the first two are objectively nonsense—at least if you're a filthy hippy like us—they still have the power to restrain our actions. Even when we settle the issues within our own heart, there's still the neighbors to consider: what happens if someone I know sees me?! (Or even someone I don't know; the situation has the potential to be embarrassing in any case). The third is different, because yes, other folks will always need free food more than we do, for any value of "we". I don't, though, think we're taking food out of the mouths of anyone if we manage to liberate something from the trash behind the Bedford Whole Foods, and as long as we continue our other charitable activities we shouldn't worry on that front. Or we could, as Luke suggested, learn the hobo code and chalk directions to the good dumpsters on the street!

I grapple with a very similar dilemma every day on both legs of my commute. Right on the Lexington/Bedford line is a condemned home, with a fence around it and—relevant to my interests—a whole lot of junk piled very impressively in the yard. I'm especially interested in the heap of five-gallon buckets. $2.54 at Home Depot online may not break the bank, but money is money and I could use a bunch of those in my farming efforts. And more importantly, I really think they're going to go to waste if I don't take them. Bulldozed into landfill when the house is finally taken down, most likely.

But what if somebody who actually has claim to them is planning to use them? I can't shake the thought. Plus, there's the fence to consider; although it provides only a visual reminder of the cultural expectation of private property, something that would alone probably prevent me from going in after the buckets even if the place weren't protected by cheap chain-link. As I say, it's a dilemma. There's also a trail-a-bike that's been locked up by the Dunkin Donuts in Lexington that I'd love to get my hands on. That one has a U-Lock, though, so there are also technical issues of removal to consider.

Neither of those are trash, though, and all that food is. Legally, trash on the curb is public property; though the stuff locked up in dumpsters is not, I don't think the stores have any moral right to it after consigning it to disposal. So can we bring ourselves to go get it? Would you?


stupid whole foods with their locked dumpsters... they probably use a compactor too. I've fantasized many times about getting a part time job there just to figure out what they do with all their day-old bread and rotisserie chickens... not to mention the fruit!

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