Dumpster-Divers and the Smoothies of Wrath
by David HGB Giles
My favourite Dumpster is locked.
I’ve been coming here for a few years, but now the lid is closed, and there’s a cable lock threaded through it to keep scavengers out. Scavengers like me.
Until now, I’ve poked happily about in the soggy detritus without obstacle. Hiding in plain sight at the end of a gravel driveway, outside the chain-link fence of a warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, the Dumpster always promised at least a few unopened bottles of top-dollar organic fruit smoothies to the intrepid Dumpster-diver. Mango Madness. Orange Carrot. Hermetically sealed and conserved by Seattle’s frigid night air, they were nonetheless too close to their sell-by dates to be worth shipping, so they ended up here. On the right night, there were hundreds of them. There probably still are.
So why lock them up? My research with Dumpster-divers and grocers in Seattle and other cities around the US, Canada, and Australasia, explores the politics and the cultural economy of waste—particularly food waste. It echoes John Steinbeck’s dry observation of depression-era surplus and scarcity in The Grapes of Wrath: “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price.” According to the USDA, for example, 5.4 billion pounds of unspoiled food are discarded by US merchants each year. A simple thought experiment and some rudimentary economics suggest that, if these edible surpluses were given away indiscriminately, the principles of supply and demand would undercut food prices. To paraphrase Steinbeck: Who would pay five dollars for a smoothie when they could pull ten of them out of the trash for nothing? In other words, what we throw away remains significant in its absence.
Of course, Dumpsters are not locked out of sheer Machiavellian cunning. Nor is food discarded with a calculating twirl of the capitalist’s moustache. Rather, food is wasted because it circulates according to its exchange value rather than its use value. Eleven perfectly good eggs and one cracked one are no longer legible in the way an intact dozen is, for example. And a bruised apple merely takes up space on a shelf next to another perfect one. A thing’s exchange value is, by definition, reckoned through comparisons. The apple that won’t sell, or won’t sell quickly enough, disappears from the shelves to make room for newer stock. So right up until the point of sale (or disposal), its value is virtual. Like Schrodinger’s cat, its fate waits upon one decisive moment.
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