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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Green-bin Delight

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After the shops have closed on Mondays and Thursdays, and before the garbage trucks arrive, the graffiti-covered storefronts of Kensington Market take on a cartoonish Technicolor. A different marketplace emerges under the sodium vapour lights, one that blurs the divisions between food and garbage, and invites us to use our public space the way raccoons use theirs. In a clandestine escapade that's part midnight feast and part timid slow-dance, a coterie of dumpster divers comes out to scour green bins for food thrown out before its time. Kensington Market becomes a gourmet restaurant where the price of a meal is only the vague peril of the streets at night, and the small risk of tasting something "slightly past it."

While gathering snacks from green bins, quiet meetings with other divers create new vocabularies and gestures for the shades between ripe and spoiled, and the distances between mine, yours, theirs, and inedible. A young, long-haired person stops and eyes me as I peer into a bin. Fermenting peppers, rabid eggplant, and then, as if from nowhere, a pristine bag of grapes. He lingers, examines a faded poster, and then pries open the bin as I walk on. Further down the row another bin overflows with bananas. "Those are all taken," whines an obscure shape hovering over a bin a few feet away.

Later I encounter a fellow leaning deep into a bin and fishing out plastic-wrapped steaks. "Do you think they're okay?" I ask, genuinely worried about the safety of this green-bin catch.

"Sure," he says, squinting a hazy blue gaze at me. "Do you want some?"

"No thanks. Vegetarian.” I size up his designer shoes, bike vest, and refined tattoos. "How often do you do this?"

"Only when I need it." The dozen steaks in his open backpack suggest he needs it really badly this time. "I don't like to take advantage," he continues quickly, undermining the tragedy of the commons, the theory that individuals always undervalue and overexploit collective resources. In the wilderness of the Market by night, an alternative ecological philosophy prevails, one that decries waste, selfishness, and the habit of preferring surfaces to substance. The meat-diver's eagerness to share is far more characteristic of green bin scavengers than the banana-hoarder's possessiveness.

Around midnight I come upon another dumpster diver wearing large, round glasses and carrying three heavy bags. He talks quickly with an accent, and is spry despite a hunched back and short, wobbly legs that bespeak childhood polio. He'd look far older now, he told me later, if he didn't eat so well. "I come on Mondays and Thursdays," he says, "when they put out the compost. Up there is good because they have so many bins." He waves in the direction of Oxford Fruit, where two neat rows of green bins, 22 in all, preside over the intersection of Nassau and Augusta. Gallantly he goes back to find me the vegetables he'd wanted but had been unable to carry: a zucchini with a small brown patch, a blistered potato, and a — a — he tries to remember the name — "a sweet tomato," he says.

"Pomegranate?" I ask. "No — persimmon."

"Yes, yes," he says. "Persimmon. Many antioxidants. Very healthy." He hands me the soft, orange fruit as though it were a baby animal. The depression around its stem implodes into an apologetic firework of rot. "It's still good," he says, "on the other side."

While I wonder whether his accent is Spanish or Greek, and think of other Mediterranean foods besides persimmon he must be hoping to find, he piles some mainly white cauliflowers into my arms and details a recipe for cooking them in a turmeric bhaji. "Full of antioxidants," he insists.

"Where is your accent from?" I ask.

"Mondays and Thursdays," he says, looking a little wistfully down the street at the garbage truck coming to put an end to the evening's treasure hunt. Cradling the cauliflower and fruit, and clutching the bag of aromatic cinnamon buns he'd thrust into my hand, I watch him tread off into the darkness, round a corner, and disappear. A man marching a shopping cart full of beer cans up the street curses some passing women. "We're gonna get it on!" he screams to the air. He could use some antioxidants, I think to myself, turning to go.

Although Toronto's green-bin composting program collects tons of still-edible food each week, the city never donates this harvest to community groups because of its potential health risks. By mining the Market for overlooked bounty, however, dumpster-divers increase the efficiency and equity of the City's composting system. For some low-budget gourmets, bruised persimmon beats fresh mac-and-cheese, and the joy of saving food from rot is a delectable condiment. The best spice of all is the delight in finding something not just untarnished but glazed with the coulis of chance discovery.