Trash talk

Sidewalk, sidewalk, sidewalk,” Peter Henly repeated, as he pointed out the origin of his cushions, dining chairs and kitchen table. “I’ve dumpstered food, clothes and furniture,” he said. “People throw a lot of good stuff away. You’d be surprised.”

Henly, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, lives off-campus in Allston. He was introduced to the practice of dumpster diving, or, taking residential or commercial trash for one’s own needs or benefit, the summer before he came to college.

Henly explained the conditions of dumpstered food. “For example, Einstein [Bros.] Bagels just throws away day-old bagels that aren’t fresh because they can’t sell them the next day. They put [them] in one big bag and put it right on top of the dumpster. It’s usually always completely separated from the trash.”

“Sometimes, some of the food is still warm,” Henly said, adding that he has never gotten sick from his dumpster dive finds.

Just around the block from Henly’s house, at the Allston thrift store Urban Renewals, the intercom announces a yellow tag sale on linens in English and Spanish. The line at the Harvard Avenue Western Union nearly reaches the door as neon lights blurt, “Cash Checks Now.” And a block away, the homeless regulars at Cheap Chic relax on the store’s secondhand couches on a cold night.

The U.S. economy has been in a recession since December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But even when the marks of a recession eventually fade, the symptoms of poverty linger.

T.J. Hanes, Henly’s roommate and fellow dumpster diver, experienced the reality of the recession. His mother lost her job. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the U.S. unemployment rate reached 10 percent last December.

“Even before the recession, I’ve really taken upon myself to learn how much I really need and you can be surprised on how little it is,” said Hanes, who jokes about how his most expensive possession is a bike pump.

Hanes, a sophomore in the School of Management, works upward of five jobs at a time in addition to keeping a full class schedule. But he also said he understands that the recession will pass, according to the laws of economics.

“The people who dumpster dived before are still doing it now,” Hanes said. “There’s no increase of activity because of economic reasons.”

Food Not Trash

But there is an increase of activity of larger-scale dumpster diving. The Food Not Bombs movement capitalizes on dumpster diving to serve the community while protesting war and poverty. The Boston coalition uses dumpstered food from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and other grocery stores to make a free, vegan meal for anyone who is hungry on Fridays and Sundays around the Boston area. In warmer seasons, they drive out to western Massachusetts to comb the fields of organic farms that donate some of their harvest.

Black plastic bags of bread and pastries rustled on one windy Sunday as people huddled in the Central Square sitting area for curried sweet potatoes and vegetable stir-fry. Ethan Schmidt, 20, received a purple flower on Valentine’s Day while serving food in Central Square, Cambridge.

“We serve a lot of people who are technically homeless, and other people are just hungry. We’ll serve anyone,” Schmidt said.

“And that in itself is pretty effective,” he added, chuckling, the sides of his mouth yellow from that day’s meal of curry. “We serve vegan meals, we serve meals that would otherwise be in the garbage.”

Carolyn, who did not want to release her last name, receives a good vegan meal every week.

“I won’t step into a kitchen with a creature in it,” exclaimed the strict vegan. She has volunteered for Food Not Bombs since 1996 and traveled from her home in the North End to Central Square with her own plastic ware for the hot meal.

Let them Eat Waste

Employees at businesses whose dumpsters are frequented by divers have differing opinions over the ethics of the practice. When it comes to dumpster divers, an employee at the Brookline Panera Bread, a café and bakery chain, said he pretends not to notice.

“We lock our back doors when it gets dark so the dumpster is inaccessible,” said the cashier, who said he could not reveal his name. “They don’t let anyone out there for safety reasons, so we don’t see any dumpstering. But I’m sure it happens.”

With a compassionate attitude towards free food, Panera Bread further addresses the inefficiencies of food distribution in local communities. Through their Day-End Dough-Nation program that started in 2008, Panera Bread donates unsold bakery products at the end of each day to local food banks and charities.

Henly admitted that he “used to dumpster Panera a lot.”

One time, Henly said, he got caught by a Panera employee while dumpstering.

“The employee said, “Hey, don’t worry, I won’t call the cops. Do you want to take these cookies we have? Because we were going to donate them but the people never came to pick them up.’ So he just gave us a bunch of cookies.”

However, one employee at Trader Joe’s in Brookline had a different way of dealing with dumpster divers. A Trader Joe’s employee by the name of “Z” caught some divers after work one night and waited for them to find him.

“I found their bikes and hid them,” Z said while bagging groceries.

“When they came back, they freaked out, thinking their bikes were stolen. I threatened to call the police and they left.”

Trader Joe’s National Publicity Department director Alison Mochizuki did not address dumpster diving specifically, and only commented that Trader Joe’s “donates a majority of our items that are not sellable.”

While dumpster diving is not illegal, dumpsters are usually on private property and divers can find themselves in trouble with trespassing.

Although the police have not personally given him a problem, Schmidt recalled stories where the police and the Food Not Bombs groups clash.

“Lots of Food Not Bombs groups get arrested for serving food,” Schmidt said, as police sirens coincidentally clamored a few blocks away. “Although it hasn’t been a problem recently here, but lots of businesses have a problem seeing a bunch of homeless people in front of their place.”

To the people who criticize dumpster divers for refusing to work with the system, Henly responds, “It’s not like I’m an anti-capitalist. I study economics at school.”

“Honestly, it’s just free stuff. It’s just convenient when things are free,” he laughed. “I don’t want to be a stupid consumer. You don’t have to be a mindless consumer.”

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