Dumpster diving and the tragedy of the commons

As I was completing a draft of a paper on dumpster divers in 2012, Emmanuel Guerisoli, a friend at the New School urged me that my case really was about the tragedy of the commons. While at the time I didn’t think too much about it, recently while reading Garrett Hardin his comment was pressed back to me.

The tragedy of the commons is a theory of collective human behavior that poses that without state regulation or privatization, people will maximize their short-term self interests and will inevitably overexploit commonly shared resources. An example is the risk of overfishing our oceans or the problem of collectively acting to tackle climate change. Garrett Hardin concluded: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all” (1968: 1244)

How is the tragedy of the commons applicable to dumpster diving? 

Dumpster divers are people who collect and eat food from retail trash as a lifestyle choice, rather than being driven by necessity. Some retail establishment donate food that is about to expire – such as packaged freshly made salads and sandwiches – to charity organizations like City Harvest. The bulk of expired or about to expired food, ranging from day old bagels to vegetarian sushi, from bags full of fair trade chocolate bars to Dunkin’ donuts, however, ends up in the trash. In the United States an estimated 40% of all food goes to waste at some point of the production and consumption cycle.

In New York City, where I did fieldwork on dumpster divers in 2012-2013, retail trash is put in trash bags on the sidewalk six nights a week. As trash bags are put in public space, trash temporarily becomes a common good, not officially subject to police restrictions. The trash landscape in New York City can be seen as a common available for anyone to exploit.

Inline afbeelding 1

While some dumpster divers are secretive about their best spots, they don’t really have to worry about the issue of over-diving. The commons of dumpster divers in New York City get replenished 6 days a week, with stores seemingly endlessly throwing out wasted food.

Also, not everyone is as eager to stick both hands into unknown trash bags, especially not in public. Most people find the idea of eating food from the trash disgusting and the idea of doing so voluntarily rather crazy. Once at an alumni event in New York, after I told a middle-aged Dutch expat about my research, he gravely asked me how widespread mental illness was among dumpster divers.

The “tragedy of the commons” in the case of dumpster divers, rather, seems to be expressed in a shared commitment to responsibly managing the commons. For instance, I was dumpster diving alone at the Trader Joe’s on Union Square in Manhattan on a Wednesday night in September 2012:

As I am looking into another trash bin, moving white trash bags around to look one layer beneath the trash bags on top, I see an Asian, perhaps Japanese looking woman in her late thirties, bend over to close a trash bag full with packaged boxes of breaded, roasted chicken. She must be around 1.60 m and is wearing a cotton dark blue cap, her shoulder-long hair in a tiny pony tail. She is not carrying a handbag or other bag and is dressed in a grey hoodie with the name of a bar on it. I approach her and she introduces herself to me as Rachel, telling me somewhat later that she is a jewelry maker and sells her jewelry online. 

She tells me that she is closing the bag in front because otherwise the Trader Joe’s may get a fine. When I ask her whether she works for the Trader Joe’s she says hat she used to but not anymore. I tell her that I left the bag open intentionally, hoping that other people may find it and take some of the breaded chicken. She answers: “The people that come here know where to find it” (Field notes, September 19. 2012)

She is probably right in pointing out my naive idea that random New Yorkers would casually “stop by and take some chicken” upon seeing an open trash bag on the street. More interesting is that she takes the stand of Trader Joe’s and enacts the norm of closing bags and not leaving behind a mess: even going as far as cleaning up after people who neglect to do so. This norm was enacted and expressed by all the dumpster divers I followed – and evidenced by how unknown others ‘left behind’ trash they had just dived at, leaving behind legible signs such as an occasional lost glove or loosely retied knots.

Why did they do so? What can we draw from this short example? I think it is quite interesting that without formal regulations, with vague group boundaries and a weakly developed sense of ‘groupness,’ most dumpster divers in New York shared a normative commitment to the responsible self-management of the commons. Rather than “bringing ruin,” as Garrett Hardin’s model might have predicted, they work together with many anonymous others to maintain ‘their’ commons.


One thought on “Dumpster diving and the tragedy of the commons

  1. Sharon, this is no gracefully written, a pleasure to read. It makes one ask how many other “commons” are developed among people in the city who rely on such resources. Thanks for this, Bill K.

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