Toronto’s Trash

Toronto Skyline Garbage Strike

There has been a lot of talk about waste at city hall as of late. The need to cut down on waste, to improve effectiveness, and stop that gravy train is repeated up and down the halls. I would like to talk about waste as well, but perhaps a different kind of waste. City garbage.

It is a truly remarkable thing that everyday our city’s waste is flushed, tossed in a bin, taken away, and incorporated back into the city in the form of recyclables or compost. An interconnected system of sewers that run like veins through the city and trucks carrying away refuse like a cell clearing away waste are the very life blood of a city. The story, however, does not end there. Aside from the legal public and private waste collectors there are whole networks of informal waste economies that shape the way waste is managed in the city. Communities of dumpster divers, freegans, and blue-bin entrepreneurs find wealth in the garbage of Toronto.

The concept of dumpster diving for food and other material goods is certainly not limited to Toronto. At a Climate Camp I attended in New Zealand most, if not all, of the food was salvaged from dumpsters. It was healthy and safe due in large part to picky dumpster divers and excellent cooks.

The goal of communal meals and low cost or free food for all leads dumpster divers to find the food that is thrown away for slight imperfections or past due dates. Food Not Bombs here in Toronto actively dive and cook regular meals at Allan Gardens for anyone in need of a meal. They also provided the food for the People’s Assembly on Climate Justice a few weeks ago. Cities are the places that this type of closed-loop consumption can take place. People that are creative and daring enough to seek alternative food or consumption systems flourish where there is opportunity.

Dumpster diving is, of course, not without its critics and detractors. It is illegal in many cities, including Toronto, as taking food from dumpsters leaves the restaurant or food outlet liable if someone gets ill from the food and, moreover, it is considered stealing. Toronto Public Health warns against dumpster diving for safety reasons, which isn’t hard to understand. Yet many fruits and vegetables are wrapped separately before they are binned. You have probably seen that discounted food is usually already bagged.

For Food Not Bombs, who provide food for the underserved and homeless populations in Toronto, one could question the ethics of feeding food pulled from a dumpster to the most vulnerable in our society. While some argue the concept is degrading to those who are served, there is also an argument that it is perhaps more degrading that in a country with wealth and privilege that anyone should require the services Food Not Bombs provides. An alternative often pointed to is Second Harvest, an organization shares the Food Not Bombs principle that no surplus food should go to waste. However, Second Harvest makes arrangements with supermarkets to get the food that is not sold and would have otherwise been tossed in the bin.

While dumpster divers seek food, there is an additional group of people who collect recyclables from garbage bins outside homes and businesses. These street entrepreneurs or scavengers, depending on your point of view, find subsistence living by returning bottles to the LCBO, returning aluminum cans, or selling scrap metal. The blue-bin entrepreneurs are a part of many people’s streetscapes in the morning. There are two ladies that go around my neighbourhood collecting recyclables. As far as I can tell they do not get any trouble from anyone. However, the city finds trouble with them, A city bylaw gives authority to fine anyone caught going through blue-bins or rubbish, the rationale being that it is considered stealing. Though not rigorously enforced, likely due to the difficulty in its enforcement, the city is concerned about the loss in revenue. Aluminum cans and scrap metal in particular fetch a high market price. Street entrepreneurs/scavengers deny the city of that revenue.

Like Rome’s great sewers, cities must find ways to manage its waste. Individuals are finding their own spaces in the garbage of the city. Some are going for as little waste as possible, such as the couple in Vancouver who created The Clean Bin Project, or the folks who are taking what is thrown away and turning it into a way to bring community together or support an income. However the entrepreneurial or creative citizens of Toronto do it, I do not doubt that city hall should appreciate the effort to clean up all that waste instead of all that garbage on our city streetscapes.

Photo by ajcgn (no real name given) on flickr


  1. The people who collect the beer and liquor empties have created (thanks especially to the liquor bottle deposit fees) a legitimate service business.

    For me, and I think for lots of people, the effort and economic value of the time it takes to collect your empties and take them to the beer store is not worth the deposit money you get back–nor is it worth finding a place to store all the bottles until a unique trip is worthwhile.

    You need the economy of scale of a whole block or more to make a deposit run start to be worthwhile, which is the collectors’ business model.

    Some houses on my street seem to look at the process that way, as they are in the habit of separating the returnables and putting them near, but not in, the Blue Bins, so there’s no actual diving involved for the returners.

  2. The transformation of an object from something wanted, to something unwanted (trash), is not so clear-cut as one might immediately assume. One moment you want that aluminium can because it contains your drink; the next moment you don’t want it and it’s trash – disgusting – because it’s now empty.

    We don’t want our garbage, we want it taken away, but if someone who’s not officially designated takes it, we consider it stealing. Stealing something we don’t want. But they can’t have it either.

    There is quite a bit of resistance to examining these issues. During the recent garbage strike, it was like the entire city was studiously ignoring the obvious fact that we produce an amazing amount of garbage, and perhaps we should try to reduce it at the source (our homes and businesses). All of the energy, of course, was instead channeled into distractions about sick days etc. instead of the uncomfortable truth of our wasteful ways.

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