Dumpster divers find capital's discarded treasure
In his lounge he prepares for the night ahead. A black hoodie pulled over his head, check. A torch attached to his head like a miner's light, check. Tight fitting gloves, check. Thick-soled boots, check. A small knife for slitting rubbish bags, check.
Dumpster diving - or "skip binning" as Dave Boyle calls it - is about looking through skips for any useful resource. He's been into skip binning for as long as skips have been around - since the 80s - and says there is a skip bin for every occasion.
"You can get a lot, but you've got to be prepared to dig around, and you can't be proud because people are going to see you," he says. "You've got to tell yourself that it's all going to the landfill and you are saving the planet by reusing these articles."
Tonight Boyle quickly and quietly opens the bin lid. A strong smell of sawdust hits him as he pulls himself up over the side of the skip. He's in.
For a few seconds he becomes invisible, the torch light the only give- away that something is going on in the half-empty skip. He begins slitting bags and rifling through the contents. Slim pickings tonight, but he does find a near new umbrella that works fine. Always handy in Wellington.
Boyle is an unemployed artist (some of his work is currently on show at Roar! gallery in Vivian St), so is always on the lookout for art supplies and rarely needs to pay for any. He finds charcoal pencils, wax crayons, paint and canvases, as well as items for his sculptures. But it's not just art supplies that Boyle finds. Wellington skip bins are full of useful treasures for those brave enough to dive in.
Builders' skips and suburban household skips can be a great source of scrap metal - chiefly copper, brass, lead and aluminium - which can be sold to scrap metal merchants. Supermarket skips are the ones to go to for food. But the skips Boyle mainly targets are attached to inner-city apartment blocks.
He says people moving to a different flat often dump their possessions, and he has saved hundreds of dollars furnishing his apartment with their cast-offs.
"I can get everything from light bulbs to toilet paper for free. If you know a good skip, there's a lot of everyday articles you don't have to pay for."
He gets pens, pencils, CDs, DVDs, computer extras, appliances such as toasters and blenders, furniture, cushions, duvets, suntan lotion and shampoo. "I've had so much shampoo I just wash my clothes with it."
He's also on the lookout for any food that's still good. He goes for items that are sealed, such as pasta, spices or tins. "In all the years I've been doing it I've never come across any food that was off."
The lure of free fresh food was one of the reasons university student Lesley Roberts* started to search skip bins.
She began in Melbourne, getting fresh fruit, veges and coffee after the markets closed. "No one seemed to care. There was never any trouble but it was always a race against the forklift, which was coming to take the food to the tip."
She did not have much money when she moved to Wellington, and she met people who were dumpster diving around the supermarket bins. Some supermarkets compact their rubbish, making it useless for divers, but Roberts found that some dumpsters can provide a feast. "The best bins were New World Metro and Countdown Kilbirnie."
The dumpsters there are locked, but the divers found a way around that. "We got the keys from someone who had a contact either with the supermarket or the waste management. The supermarkets change the locks every six months, so you have to keep getting the new keys. It was always a few steps removed, so I don't know who that was."
They would get fresh fruit, packaged fruit and vegetables, yoghurts and cheeses (blue and brie) just on their use- by date, and bakery bread. Sometimes they would also get beer and wine bladders. If one bottle from a six pack was smashed the other five were discarded, as was cask wine if the cardboard was wet.
The divers would sometimes take meat pizzas, sausages or red meat, but avoid cooked or raw chicken. And there were also the "mystery cans", dented tins with no wrappers that often turned out to be plain old baked beans.
"But one time there happened to be a supermarket bag's worth of chocolate bars. That was a good one," Roberts recalls.
All the food taken was washed in a bath, and refrigerated. On a good day the quantity was huge - food would cover the bathroom floor. "For a few months, I was mostly living on dumpster food. But it's not all nutritionally valuable. I thought, this is not really good for me. I don't want to keep living just off pizza and yoghurt."
She says some people love diving for the thrill of it but others do it out of necessity, relying on the food they get to keep them going for the week. Roberts and her fellow divers argue that they are not causing anyone harm, they are not damaging sales because they would not have bought the items anyway, and they are making good use of what is rubbish.
On the face of it, recycling items from skip bins could be seen as doing a service for the environment.
In New Zealand, environmental groups estimate that $751 million worth of food is discarded each year, more than 1 billion plastic bags are used, and for every person 72kg of packaging is thrown out.
The Green Party calculates that New Zealanders use more than 380 aluminium cans every 30 seconds.
E-waste recyclers, The RCN Group, say the nation now dumps between 300 million and 400 million electronic items per year, with less than 20 per cent of that e-waste being recycled.
There is a scene in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, set in the Depression of the 1930s, where hungry people are watching behind fences as food is being destroyed to keep profit margins up.
This kind of contradiction is rife in the capitalist system, according to Victoria University senior sociology lecturer Dr Chamsy el-Ojeili. He says we are in the age of consumer capitalism, where people spend more money on services and commodities than is needed to meet their basic needs.
"We have massive industries built on inducing desire for this stuff, where these products are often poor quality, excessively packaged and don't last long, and where consumers move on very quickly to the next thing, discarding all sorts of stuff that might be used in some way."
El-Ojeili says dumpster diving can be seen as a response to the inequalities of this system. At the same time as richer segments of society are consuming more, there is a growing gap between rich and poor, with rising rates of poverty. "We have over-production at the same time as poverty. That means, there's plenty of stuff, plenty of demand for stuff, but no effective demand," meaning demand only matters to businesses when people can pay.
So while dumpster divers see themselves as making good use of rubbish, some businesses see them as a nuisance, and have threatened to call the police.
In Kilbirnie, Roberts and her team got it down to a well-oiled machine, operating in groups to work quickly and avoid unwanted attention from authorities. One person would be in the dumpster sorting out the food. One would be in the dock area. And one would stay in the alleyway. The food would be passed along to the last person, who would put it in the car. "You don't want to be standing there with a big pile of food looking dodgy."
Despite all the planning, they do sometimes get seen by the staff or owners of the dumpsters.
"We got caught once going into the bins during the day," she says. "The employee was a bit intimidated. He just told us to put everything back into the bin and leave. I found it surprising that he watched us climb back over the fence, rather than open the gate for us. But that night we went back and retrieved it because it was too good to leave. Some of us needed food to eat for the week."
From a retailer's perspective, dumpster diving is to be discouraged. Luke Schepen is the public affairs manager for supermarket chain Progressive Enterprises and says the food in skips is put there because it is most likely unsafe to eat.
Retailers prefer not to dump food but sometimes they have items that are past their use-by date that they can no longer sell, he says. Also products are sometimes recalled if a food safety issue has come up so they will dispose of it in a skip.
For Progressive, dumpster diving is not widespread but it is an issue that comes up from time to time, and bins are kept secure and locked.
Schepen concedes that sometimes supermarkets do have surplus food, so rather than dump it Progressive has started a food-rescue initiative.
The National Food Rescue Programme, launched in December, aims to redirect food from going to waste. Groceries they cannot sell but remain safe to eat are redirected to the Salvation Army and other charity partners. This is food that may have incorrect labelling or damaged packaging or be close to but not beyond its use-by date or past its best-before date.
Reports on the legal status of dumpster diving are hazy but police Senior Sergeant Hamish Milne is very clear on this point.
The Wellington area tactical co-ordinator says taking items out of skips is potential theft. People who hire the skips own the rubbish until it is picked up by the council or a waste management company.
"I am aware of very occasional instances of people being apprehended taking clothes from charity clothing bins and those people are likely to have been charged with theft."
But he is unaware of genuine rubbish being taken that has resulted in any prosecutions.
He says the main reason prosecutions are not taken is because the matter doesn't come to the attention of police. Builders don't complain if people take stuff out of their skips because it means lower disposal costs. "If people choose not to tell the police, then the police don't even have the option to record it."
According to Boyle, it's not police but grumpy caretakers and tenants who are the main hazard for dumpster divers to watch out for. He says the standard dumpster diver response to someone's questions is to say you're looking for cardboard boxes. "Lots of people accept that as an excuse for being in a skip."
Boyle says that since the recession there hasn't been as much useful stuff in bins as there once was. He puts this down to people holding on to things for longer.
But 2009 to 2010 was when he really hit the "motherlode". That was when there were a lot of international students who would leave town and throw the whole flat into the bin. "We were getting rice cookers, toasters and vacuum cleaners, mats and perfectly good duvets and bed covers." He also got lots of Chinese magazines, DVDs and CDs.
If there is a "good skip" where people are moving out, Boyle will visit three times a day - morning, lunchtime and evening. "Because the word gets round and other skip divers will be round there getting the goods, so you've got to get in before them."
*Not her real name.
The Dominion Post