By Nathan Pipenberg
If you stick your head into a dumpster, the first thing that you notice is the smell -- a delicious mix of rancid cooking oil, rotten fruits and mold.
When you jump all the way into a dumpster, you start thinking about what other people would think if they saw you standing ankle-deep in garbage bags.
But if you really check out a dumpster, there's one discovery that will stick with you after the smell washes away and you accept your questionable habits -- there's a lot of food in those things. Good, clean, healthy food that we can eat. Loads of it. And it ends up in the trash every day.
At least, those were the thoughts going through my head when I went dumpster diving for the first time Sunday night. Along with my friend Weedo, I visited about five dumpsters and tore open countless trash bags. We wore leather gloves and old clothes. We took along headlamps, a stick for poking through the mushier trash heaps and backpacks to carry what we found.
Dumpster diving, also known as urban foraging, is the process of sifting through trash, usually behind restaurants and supermarkets, in search of food. It's gaining traction in the United States as more people realize just how wasteful we can be.
I decided to give it a shot. Although both Weedo and I are diving novices, we were phenomenally successful. And the end of the night, I was the proud possessor of a bag full of smoked cheeses, fresh bread, cookies and pastries.
I didn't take anything that wasn't still in its packaging or double-bagged, separated from the rest of the dumpster's contents. It was inside clean packaging, safe enough that I could even persuade my mom to eat one of the bagels I found.
Looking back on the night, I'm already sure that I'm going to try my hand at dumpster diving again. There are several reasons why.
First of all, it combines several of my favorite activities -- riding my bike all over town, staying up late on school nights and eating food without paying for it.
Secondly, it's addictive. It's challenging. On our first dive, we found plenty of bread and cookies, which is a good start. But I'm not just trying to carbo load. I know there are fruits and veggies out there, but they are more elusive. I have to find the right dumpsters, and I already have a few ideas where to find them.
Thirdly, if my experience on Sunday night is any indication, when you find something, you tend to find a lot of it. With the quantity of food you can harvest while diving, sharing meals and eating together becomes a lot easier. I have so much bread in my freezer right now I will have to find some people to share it with.
Finally, it really is eye-opening to see just how much food is wasted. In one dumpster alone, there were at least five trash bags brimming with baked goods. In another, we found bags stuffed with meatballs, lunch meats and veggies that never made it onto a sub.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away 33 million tons of food each year. To break it down, that averages out to every person in the country taking one pound of food and tossing it in the trash every day.
I think it's something that's easy to ignore when you're just tossing out an uneaten pizza crust, but it really sticks with you when you're pulling apart garbage bags in the middle of the night.
Somehow, seeing all that food at once really had an effect on me. I've ordered too much at restaurants before. I've thrown out moldy bread and bought jars of peanut butter that I lost in the fridge for a year before chucking them, unopened. None of that bothered me as much as unknotting a bag to find about 30 pounds of fresh bread, rolls and bagels inside.
I took as much I thought I could eat and share in a week, eventually stopping because my backpack was full. I felt a strange mixture of elation and despair.
I had as much free food as I could handle, but I still had to throw the bag back in the dumpster. It wasn't that I was wasting the food -- I was actually saving a small portion of it. But even so, it felt like I was throwing something away by not taking it all.
After one dive, I think I'm hooked. It wasn't quite what I expected. Somehow I thought that if I found the right dumpster it would be clean and neat and appealing. Nope. It's still a dumpster, and it's still gross. But my get-up -- the dirty gloves, stained clothes and headlamp -- almost felt like a uniform of protest, akin to the graffiti artist's gas mask and hoodie.
It says: I am a dumpster diver, and I eat trash.
Nathan Pipenberg is a junior majoring in journalism and international politics. He is The Daily Collegian's Wednesday columnist.
This post was originally published in The Daily Collegian.