‘Don’t waste the waste’: Dumpster dinners among garbage gourmands

Marie Mourad, Alex Barnard

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    On a Wednesday night in May 2012, Janet, a 45-year-old high school Spanish teacher, and Jonathan, a 25-year-old self-described anarchist and fulltime activist, are washing and cutting courgettes in the kitchen of a cosy apartment in Queens, New York. As they work, they chat amicably about how best to prepare the vegetable stir fry and debate over whether the meal should be vegan. Around them, ten other people are helping with the preparation. This scene is reminiscent of the classic American potluck, where each participant brings a dish to share or ingredients to prepare with the others, except for one key difference: the night before, all of the food being prepared had been at the bottom of 50-litre dark plastic trash bags, placed on the pavement and destined for the landfill. This meal started where other meals usually end: disposal. Janet and Jonathan are part of a group of ‘freegans’ in New York City. Freegans are people who adopt the practice of eating from the garbage as part of a ‘total boycott’ of an economic system they see as wasteful, exploitative, and unsustainable.1 They call this Wednesday night’s event a ‘freegan feast’: a meal where all the ingredients – except for some spices and cooking oil – have been ‘dumpster-dived’ outside of commercial establishments. Although dumpster-diving for food, clothing, or other household items has a long history as a survival strategy for the poor and marginalised, an increasing number of groups and individuals around the Western world use voluntary waste recovery as a form of political action (see Nguyen, Chen, & Mukherjee, 2014; Barnard, 2011; Gross, 2009; Edwards & Mercer, 2007). Across the Atlantic in the summer of 2013, Adrien and Marine, a haphazardly dressed and eccentric-looking young couple sharing an apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, have also organised a free meal in their community garden. Marine is a part-time French tutor, while Adrien works – ironically enough – for a gastronomic guidebook. He puts his knowledge of French culinary culture to good use, preparing a barbecue that brings together a diverse group from the neighbourhood around food that has been almost entirely rescued from the trash. The pair have been dumpster-diving for fouryears and, as they stated on an advertisement posted in March 2013 for a room in their shared apartment, ‘Nine-tenths of our food comes from rescue!’2 They represent a growing trend of dumpster-divers who recover waste for reasons that vary from sustainability to amusement or thrift, particularly in response to the economic downturn in 2008 (Guillard & Roux, 2014; Brosius, Fernandez, & Cherrier, 2013; Carolsfeld & Erikson, 2013; Fernandez, Brittain, & Bennett, 2011; see also Cappellini, Marilli, & Parsons, Chapter 4). Drawing on practice theories, which underline the importance of the material dimensions of everyday life (Røpke, 2009; Shove, Trentmann, & Wilk, 2009; Warde, 2005), we show how certain objects – such as discarded food – can reshape human action in surprising ways. By analysing dumpsterdived meals as a ‘compound practice’ (Warde, 2013), breaking it down into the ‘sub-practices’ or acquiring, preparing, eating, and disposing of discarded food, we reveal the contradictions between the political and ethical meanings and the ‘doings’ (Magaudda, 2011) of this practice (see Canniford & Bradshaw, Chapter 17). As we find, ‘dumpster dinners’, free from the usual economic pressures of purchasing food, are still shaped by different cultural and social rules about how foods should be separated or combined, peeled or not-peeled, discarded or preserved. These expectations and habits at times block dumpster-divers from realising their purported commitments to reduce waste. These tensions are invisible in existing studies of dumpster-diving as a form of ethical consumption which focuses primarily, or solely, on the acquisition of wasted goods and not their subsequent trajectory (Guillard & Roux, 2014; Carolsfeld & Erikson, 2013; Edwards & Mercer, 2007; see also Närvänen, Mesiranta, & Hukkanen, Chapter 15). At a time when various public policies and activist movements aim to encourage ethical or sustainable consumption, analyses such as this are vital for showing how such changes must focus on complete systems of practices – whether from acquisition to disposal or disposal to consumption – and the way they interact with and constrain one another. We base our analysis on ethnographic observations of the activist network freegan.info in New York City from 2007 to 2012 and of Disco Soupe – a movement founded in 2012 that organises public cooking events that use discarded ingredients in order to ‘raise awareness’ on food waste in a musical and ‘festive’ atmosphere3 – in Paris from 2013 to 2014. In addition to our participation in these groups, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 29 dumpster-divers in the US and nine in France. These data are complemented by ongoing, embodied participation in dumpster-diving by both authors between 2009 and 2014.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationThe Practice of the Meal
    Subtitle of host publicationFood, Families and the Market Place
    PublisherTaylor and Francis
    Number of pages13
    ISBN (Electronic)9781317595656
    ISBN (Print)9781138817685
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
    • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
    • Social Sciences(all)


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