It was our first morning staying with Philipp Gerhardt in Vienna, and Morgan and I were seated around his kitchen table anxiously watching him prepare breakfast for us. Yogurt and museli. A simple, yet delicious tradition in Austria.
He was just about finished scooping the last bits of yogurt into the bowls when I spotted a perfect complement for the meal. “Hey Phil, would it be cool if I chopped up that banana?”
Our host glanced over to the bowl of fruit, and then mentioned offhandedly “Well sure…as long as you don’t mind it’s from a dumpster.”
Philipp is a regular dumpster diver. Once a week, he and his girlfriend Sofie sneak behind a string of supermarkets near their apartment in Vienna’s second district to see what sort of discarded food they can dig up in dumpsters. “You’d really be amazed” Philipp told us, “One time we even found 40 packages of smoked salmon.”
We decided to put his rhetoric to the test. That night, Philipp agreed to take us on our first dumpster diving excursion.
At 2 AM, we set off through the city by bike, a few beers helping to keep us warm against the brisk air rushing past us. Our first stop was an organic market. As we pulled up behind the store, Philipp warned us not to make too much noise. Austrian police, he told us, don’t necessarily have any problems with people rifling through unsecured dumpsters, but at 2 AM it wasn’t worth the trouble of waking the neighbors.
Morgan hoped off his bike excitedly and went for the nearest waste bin. Nothing but mounds of crumpled paper. Phillip smiled and guided us through the process. “No no, you’ve got to come over here, to the green trashcans. That’s where the produce is.”
The two of us watched as he snapped on a headlamp and jumped full body into the dumpster. At first glance, the container seemed to be filled with nothing but bags of peeled oranges, rotting cabbage, and bruised tomatoes. But as we started rifling through the top layers, we hit the payload.
Plastic-wrapped packages of carrots and tomatoes, perfectly edible zucchinis, and a couple of bananas. Score. And, as Philipp explained to us, the sole reason the store threw them out was for cosmetic reasons. These fruits and veggies probably wouldn’t have been your first pick from the shelves in the produce section, but after a good wash in the sink they’d be perfectly fine. (In fact, we made quite a delicious salad out of them the next afternoon.)
With produce taken care of, it was then time to hit up the meatier stuff. “Damn, I totally forgot my gloves” Philipp said as he opened the waste bin at a larger, commercial supermarket. I could see why. Opening each black, plastic bag was its own mystery. It felt like Christmas morning…with a few unpleasant surprises. “Ugh, this one here is the meat trimming” Phillipp remarked as a foul stench seeped out. For every bag of waste, we did find some salvageable stuff though, including 30 packages of the Austrian Slim Jims.
Even so, dumpster diving is anything but glamorous. So what’s the point of jumping into wet, rotten trash containers when, in reality, the cost savings are quite negligible?
For Philipp, the practice has to do with environmental conservation. A forestry management researcher at a major university in Vienna, Phillip is part of a community of academics who believe that the degree of wasted food in our supply chain is unsustainable. You can learn a lot about inefficiencies in the food industry from what you find in supermarket dumpsters – like what products and crops are overproduced and subsidized in relation to their demand. It’s not stinginess, but seeing the sheer volume of discarded, edible food, that drives dumpster divers like Phillipp to go out each week.
Environmental activists at his university even exchange and copy keys that open up locked dumpsters in the city. “I have a postal workers key, and the trash collector’s key…they’re very useful” he told us.
And I have to admit, the whole experience was kind of exhilarating. However, Morgan and I decided we couldn’t really see ourselves continuing the practice in the near future – especially given the low price of food, and risks for disease, in Eastern Europe.
We can’t wait to try this back in California. There must be gold mines behind Whole Foods.