You may have been on your way back from the train station one day and noticed some rustling around in an alleyway by U-Express. Or maybe you were strolling down rue Felix Faure when you passed some youngsters loitering by the garbage bin in front of Naturalia; people reaching into split-open black bags which sometimes release a questionable smell.
Maybe you looked twice, and if you looked long enough, you would have recognized that they were Sciences Pistes.
Indeed, dumpster diving has gained ground among our very own “leaders of the future”, Gala-goers and wine-drinkers.
Of course, foraging for discarded food is nothing new. Still, dumpster diving has become a trend not only amongst those in material need but also among a growing number of people actively questioning our society’s relationship toward consumption and waste. Dumpster divers at Sciences Po may likely be easing their grocery budget, but are also responding to a sincere belief that good food shouldn’t go to waste.
So what’s there to find? The goods recovered range from basics like fruits, vegetables, bread, flour or rice, to specialty products like tofu, chocolate, cosmetic products, and, well, just about anything. Typically, the food recovered has been thrown away due to overstocking, exceeded expiry dates, broken packaging, or imperfect appearances.
It’s shocking to see what’s left over, particularly in France, the first country to pass a law which requires grocery stores to donate unsold food to local charities and food banks rather than throwing it away. If such excess remains in the garbage even under such legislation, it’s disturbing to imagine the degree of waste you’d find in countries with no such restrictions. In light of this reality, dumpster diving has taken on a political meaning, used by environmentalists as a form of everyday resistance.
If you have heard of dumpster diving before, you might associate it with “freeganism”, a term combining “free” and “veganism”. It describes a diet which consists almost or entirely of discarded food, reflecting support for an “alternative economy”; one which rejects a the standard market. However, dumpster diving does not necessarily imply being vegan or even vegetarian; perfectly good meat is often salvaged. The emphasis on an alternative, “free” economy also reflects the anarchist connotation of the term. Indeed, dumpster diving is alive and well in an anarchist subculture, where it provides a unique site of contestation toward official regulated transactions. But you don’t have to be vegan or anarchist to see the sense in opting out of the industrial food market. Once you’ve discovered first hand the quantity and quality of products thrown away every day, buying from the store begins to lose its normal logic.
In larger urban centers, foraging for would-be wasted food has been orchestrated on a larger scale for specific aims. Organizations like “Foods not Bombs”, operate widely throughout Canada and the United States, collecting preparing vegetarian or vegan meals which they serve public spaces, at no cost to recipients, in need or otherwise. These initiatives address waste more broadly, not only food waste. For example, “Really, Really Free Markets” is an association which organizes markets for the free exchange of all sorts of personal and household items.
While Menton doesn’t have such large-scale organizations, a distinct sense of community is created by dumpster diving. Not only do we run into each other and share our findings, we also come into contact with local people who we would likely never meet otherwise. On the odd occasion, curious elderly people will ask us what we’re doing or try to give us money. Once we’ve assured them that we are not in need of financial help, these encounters often lead to interesting conversations about waste. Sometimes we are searching together with people living in the street, a situation which has lead us to consider whether we are taking food that others need more. Our resolution has been to leave the products that can be eaten as are, taking rather those which need cooking. Often times, there is simply so much discarded food, that there would be no sense of “competition” in the first place. Furthermore, these interactions have allowed us to have a sense of connection with a group of people who we are not normally in contact with during our everyday lives in Menton.
However, as more and more students get involved in the scavenging, it’s important that we think about how to do it respectfully, with the good of the entire Menton community in mind.
We should consider how much ‘space’ we occupy in such a small town where locals collect food as well, especially being aware of those who are in a position of need. Recent conversations have led us to the idea of creating a list of guidelines for Sciences Pistes who want to get involved: Share everything, always prioritize those in need, be respectful of storeowners by searching discretely and leaving no mess behind..
These are more than small details, and will ensure that a well intended form of action doesn’t inadvertently cause more harm than good.
EnvironneMenton has tried to engage the Sciences Po campus community on the issue of waste by hosting “Disco Soups”, evenings where we serve dishes made from ingredients recovered from the dumpsters. These events were often hosted in partnership with Amnesty International, raising money for Kesha Niya, an organization that provides meals to refugees in Ventimiglia. We have also started the “Umma Kitchen”, a facebook page for foodsharing, whether it be dumpster dived finds or someone’s regular groceries which they can’t finish when they’re leaving for the weekend. Considering the extent of waste not only in food production but clothing and appliances or other household items, EnvironneMenton most partnered with the BDE to host “Swap don’t Shop” an event where students can trade items which they no longer use.
As the end of the school year nears, our evening dumpster excursions feel sentimental. Once you start, it’s hard to deny the sense of anticipation they carry, going out into the night with a friend or two to see what you can find, knowingly open to the possible scrutiny of others, be they skeptical strangers or teachers who pass by. We’ll miss the dumpsters of Menton. But as things stand, there’s garbage all over the world. So watch out, whatever city you’re off to next, you might sight a Sciences Piste in the alleyway, just practicing the Science des Poubelles.