Category Archives: garbage

Diet for a Big Storm: Reflections on Food, Waste and Hurricane Sandy

Post Storm Trash, Manhattan. Photo by Diana Mincyte.

Diana Mincyte
Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow
Center for European and Mediterranean Studies
New York University

One of the most fascinating articles on food that has been circulating in post-Sandy New York was the New York Times piece that introduced the concept of the “Sandy 5”, referring to 5 lb that the inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard are said to have put on as they grappled with challenges and losses brought about by the storm. This was due to the larger than usual amounts of food acquired and consumed before and during the storm. Not an avid blogger myself, on the day of the storm, I obsessively followed food blogs, Twitter and Facebook where my food loving friends reported how they poured themselves into preparing elaborate meals, from boeuf wellington to home made pasta to Brasilian quindin. Even more interesting was to hear about the indulgence in alcoholic drinks, ranging from the obscure mid-nineteenth century cocktails to cheap wine, a phenomenon that was evidenced in the empty shelves at wine and liquor stores across post-Sandy Brooklyn. As the storm descended upon the city, our kitchen counter too became a non-stop food assembly line, churning out new dishes every hour or so. When the winds calmed down and left behind a devastated landscape, interrupted lives and severed power lines, many shared stories of rushing to the fast food chains to eat “fast” and “bad” foods in search of comfort. As the aforementioned New York Times article documents, the power-have-nots acted “like post-apocalyptic survivalists,” compensating for losses, stress, cold and darkness.

But these stories of indulgence, abundance and over-consumption also have a darker side. They reveal a complicated relationship that our modern societies have with food and waste management infrastructures. In this sense, what Sandy did is expose a particular organization of social and economic relations as well as render the material infrastructures that support these relations visible. It threw into sharp relief the unequal distribution of risks when repair and service teams were sent to the most affluent areas, while the people who manned these teams came from the places that were ravaged and destroyed by the storm. Many in the most devastated communities waited for weeks for the power to come back, and without power there was no water, no heat, no refrigerator, and in many cases, no stove. Stepping up full force, the Occupy movement with its anti-establishment critiques and mutual aid principles brought fresh blood and organizational skills into coordinating relief efforts and delivering food, water and other resources, propelling the questions of justice, morality and responsibility into the public discourse.

Sandy also showed that the early fears of mass food shortages were unfounded. In this sense, drinking water supply and food deliveries seem to have worked surprisingly well. With an exception of several larger supermarkets, most notably in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the low-lying areas of Manhattan, Staten Island, the Rockaways, Queens, and parts of New Jersey that were badly damaged and flooded, food markets opened without major delays and were well-stocked and capable of continuing service.

But while Sandy’s impact on food and water deliveries signaled the resilience of New York’s food delivery infrastructures, it is the removal of waste and recycling materials that stalled. Walking in post-Sandy New York meant not only maneuvering around fallen branches, displaced household objects and crushed cars, but also around the garbage and recycling bags filled to the brim with cans, bottles, milk cartons, food delivery containers and pizza boxes. The first picture I include here was taken from my office window in Manhattan exhibiting a line of black trash bags next to the clear recycling bags on the street curb. Classified as a potential hazard to public health, waste collection was considered a priority and garbage was picked up within two to four days after the schedule. It should also be noted that garbage pick-up trucks were out and collecting garbage even as the storm started in earnest in order to prevent it from flying away.

The second picture is of a street in a Brooklyn neighborhood capturing the

Recycling, post-Sandy. Photo by Diana Mincyte.

ubiquitous piles of recycling materials that accumulated after the storm. These recycling materials are here because the city workers and vehicles were diverted to work on other, more pressing tasks. After missing just one pick up of recycling, the piles of recycling materials often reached four or five feet in height in front of every residence and business.

It is these delays in collecting waste and recycling due to Sandy that made the wastefulness of the post-industrial consumer lifestyles acutely visible. While the city has one of the oldest and best organized recycling infrastructures in the country with the recycling rate between 16% and 18%, the issue that begs the question is just how much food packaging is necessary. As Susanne Freidberg, Julie Guthman, David Goodman, Melanie E. DuPuis, Zsuzsa Gille and Andrew Szasz, among others have shown, “freshness,” “hygiene” and “quality” have reshaped the ways in which food is produced, transported and distributed, leading to the increased reliance on elaborate and costly packaging technologies. And then there are the water bottles, soda cans, disposable cups, shopping bags and a wide range of produce such as grapes, tomatoes and zucchinis sold in styrofoam trays covered with plastic to make them into fresh-looking display items.

In addition to the packaging materials, a large proportion of food has been wasted. An earlier post on this blog by David Giles, tells us a story of recovering through dumpster diving. And even the city recognizes it as a problem. A study sponsored by New York City finds that almost 18% of all residential refuse is food and food scraps. Another recent study by Kevin D. Hall et al.  shows that one quarter of the total freshwater consumption goes for the production of food that ends up in the trash can.

As we reflect on the piles of waste and recycling materials that dotted New York City after the storm, it becomes clear that the abundance and diversity of food culture that makes this city into a thriving culinary center cannot be understood without the work that goes into maintaining its infrastructures and the large footprint that it leaves on the environment. In this sense, it is ironic that the storm that transformed several New York neighborhoods into a heap of trash was itself fed by the wasteful culture of post-industrial consumer society that defines this city. To put it differently, the sophisticated gourmand and consumer culture and a dizzying array of delicacies available in New York are also its worst enemy that makes it vulnerable to the changing climate.

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Filed under anthropology, disaster, Food Studies, Food waste, garbage, protest, sustainability

Dumpster-Divers and the Smoothies of Wrath

by David HGB Giles,
Fellow, Society of Scholars, Simpson Center for the Humanities
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Anthropology
University of Washington, Seattle

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.

The author researches the Burrito Dumpster, 2011.

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.

Of course, what makes that moment decisive is the finality of the Dumpster—the “point of no return” in the social life of a thing. In other words, most people are averse to digging through the trash. And for this reason, businesses often don’t see a need to lock up their waste. Increasingly, however, Dumpster-divers are showing up on their radar. For many of Seattle’s Dumpster-divers, for example, the aforementioned “Juice Dumpster” had become as much a household name as the company’s brand name itself. (Along with the “Chocolate Dumpster,” the “Burrito Dumpster,” etc.) Until now, they didn’t trouble the distributor enough to lock it up. I’ve known Dumpster-divers to openly clamber into it in front of the employees—I even once met a sanitation worker who saved some bottles for himself before emptying the rest into his garbage truck. However the popularity of this Dumpster has grown over the four years in which I’ve been conducting this research. And recently, a threshold has been crossed. Dumpster-divers I have interviewed in other cities have told me similar stories—of certain Dumpsters’ high profile and their consequent enclosure.

The proliferation of locked Dumpsters, then, may be proportional to the growing public profile of Dumpster-divers’ cultural and political activities in general. From the appearance of subcultures like freeganism which embrace Dumpster-diving, squatting, and other modes of surplus living, to movements like Food Not Bombs and Occupy Wall Street which depend on free access to food, space, and other resources to take direct political action, urban scavengers represent an ongoing effort to turn commercial waste into new kinds of food sovereignty, non-market value, and political influence.

This raises a variety of questions about the ways in which businesses, governments, and the scavengers will respond to each other. It seems likely that more Dumpsters will be locked up, for one thing. In turn, Dumpster-divers have always been creative about gaining entry. They’re bound to become more creative. I’m left wondering what will become of my favourite Dumpster.

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Filed under anthropology, economics, food policy, food security, Food waste, garbage, markets, SAFN Member Research