The Way of the Freegan

A Beginner’s Guide to Montreal Dumpster Diving

You may be surprised what’s waiting in the dumpsters behind grocery stores and food markets. Photo by Laurence Olivier
Photo by Laurence Olivier
Photo by Laurence Olivier

To most, sustainable shopping is bringing your own bag. But to some, footprint-free groceries means a little more effort—and getting a little dirty. If you’re annoyed with the rising levels of food waste, looking to make a political point or maybe just want some fresh bread, what’s sitting inside Montreal’s dumpsters could be a treasure waiting to be unearthed.

“I had friends who did it, so one day I went to Atwater Market, filled up my bag with a bunch of vegetables from their dumpster and I was set,” said Concordia student Jason Roussel. Even though he only looks once a week, 90 per cent of his groceries come from the garbage.

Although freeganism, or dumpster diving, may require you to add some gloves and a good pair of boots to your usual shopping trip, Roussel says that it gets easier with time. Once you get familiar with the area, even a beginner will know exactly where and where not to go.

A diver for the last few years, he says his new routine is definitely an eye opener—and not just because climbing in the garbage is now a main part of his weekly shopping.

“I had no idea how much good food was wasted,” he said. “Almost all of the vegetables are perfectly good. Usually they’re the ones that have fallen on the ground or are a little banged up [and] have the slightest imperfections—and they throw it all out.”

Claire Evans, a Concordia Fine Arts student whose grocery shopping also includes looking through the trash, said that she had no idea what was being thrown out before she started to look for herself.
“I saw friends bring home bags of bagels, bread and croissants that they had found in bakery garbages,” she said.  “They told me to check the dumpsters if I happened to walk by, and after that I started looking all of the time.”

Forget clipping coupons and shopping from the sale aisle, dumpster diving can allow students to eat in a way that they otherwise might not have been able to afford.

Evans said that, although it does help her save money, eating food deemed unfit by others has actually allowed her to eat healthier as well.

Going through the garbage of commercial stores is sort of a grey area in terms of legality. Both of the self-professed dumpster divers have never had trouble with the police, but say that being courteous of the store’s property is key to having a successful trip.

“Sometimes people will yell at you, tell you that it’s dangerous. Or what will happen is that they’ll be like, ‘There’s glass, you shouldn’t be in that dumpster,’” said Evans. “To that I’ll usually
say, ‘I’m wearing combat boots, and pants, and gloves. I’m really not going to cut myself on anything’”

Roussel and Evans have had similar experiences: no run-in with the law, and both say divers and grocers usually get along well—with a simple policy of respect.

“Usually when I encounter people doing it, they just ignore me,” Roussel said. “It happened only once where someone got mad and told me to get out. They usually just don’t really care, as long as you’re respectful.”

Although they were both ready and willing to give out advice on what to expect, and tips on what beginners should look for, both students were wary about giving out exact locations of their favorite places to look.

“It’s not so much secrecy, but more so a respect to the grocer. If hundreds of people are going through the dumpsters, they’ll probably not be too happy and maybe call the cops or something and try to stop it,” explained Roussel.

As there’s obviously no rule saying that owners must keep their trashes open, there’s also a risk that if someone leaves a mess, the next time you come back, there may be a padlock stopping you from free groceries.

“It has happened before, sometimes dumpsters do get locked if people aren’t cleaning up after themselves,” says Evans. “But if I go to a dumpster and there’s a bunch of food lying on the ground or somebody ripped a bag open, I’ll clean it up so the people from that store don’t get angry that I threw stuff everywhere.”

Although they may not give out the exact locations of their favourite spots, both advise to go to big market like Jean-Talon or Atwater, as well as bakeries around closing time, when they are getting rid of what wasn’t sold.

As for some guidelines to keep diver-to-diver relations friendly, Roussel said that there are a couple of ethical rules to keep in mind.

“Don’t leave a mess, the first person to the dumpster gets dibs, and you should probably share with people if there’s anyone else there,” he said. “Because, after all, it is food for everyone.”