GVSU student cuts down on food waste by dumpster diving

Sanda Vazgec

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported over 131 billion pounds of food waste in the country. This resulted in consumers and retailers wasting near $161 billion in food which could have been consumed, but was sent to landfills instead.

Matt Smith, a Grand Valley State University freshman, is doing everything he can to help cut down the amount of food wasted in his community. While many college students spend their downtime catching up on a Netflix series, Smith spends his time rummaging through dumpsters.

His main goal is to recover as much food as he can and donate it to those in need within the community.

Smith said he finds most of the food in the dumpsters of smaller retail stores, since larger stores have trash compactors, which make food unsalvageable.

“A lot of these stores throw the food away because of the expiration date,” Smith said. “But that date is just put there by the manufacturer as a suggestion for what the peak time they think to eat it is. The food is actually good for two, maybe three years after that.”

Smith added many stores have to throw out a large quantity of food to make room for new shipment. This is geared more toward business and profit rather than trying to prevent the serious consequences of food waste.

The USDA Economic Research Service estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted, which not only hinders food security but is also contributing to environmental issues.

Most of the food Smith finds is packaged in plastic wrappers or boxes, which is usually all thrown into a large plastic bag. This protects the food from any contamination while in the dumpster.

While dumpster diving is not illegal in Michigan, Smith said he has run into to some awkward encounters with store employees.

“It usually depends on who finds you,” Smith said. “If it’s just an employee they’ll usually just tell me to hurry up and leave, but if a manager sees me they’ll get pretty angry, sometimes threaten to call the police.”

Dumpster divers can be limited when the area has a “No trespassing” sign or if the dumpster is locked behind a gate, invasion of these circumstances could lead to legal action against divers.

While salvaging food has been his main priority, Smith has also recovered electronics, clothing, books, video games and household items.

His laptop and all of his school supplies were found while diving.

During his dives, Smith said he’s found that retail stores sometimes intentionally sabotage the merchandise they throw away so it cannot be salvaged or reused.

“Once I found an entire box of GPS (devices) and each one’s screen was smashed,” Smith said. “I’ve seen it where they open an entire box of granola bars and just slit each one open so they can’t be eaten. It’s like if they can’t make a profit off it then no one else can have it so they destroy it.”

Since he started dumpster diving last year, Smith estimates he has recovered over $33,000 in goods. His basement at home is full of recovered food. In addition to donating to local pantries, he also gives food away on campus and advocates for food waste awareness.

Smith encourages anyone to contact him if they are need of food or would like to learn more about how to help fight the mass wasting of food.

His findings are documented on his Instagram account, under the handle “dumpsterdan3.”