V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Urban foragers

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers September, 2008.

We've hit garbage gold.

The boys descend on the boxes of trash with wild, hungry, eyes. An interview is cut short when the interviewee sees the spoils being pillaged before him.

Four pairs of hands dive into the piles of books, clothes and assorted goods left out on the curb for garbage pick-up. Items are tucked quickly into bags. Heads are bowed intently above the heap and lift only to laugh with friends about the wind-up sushi toy, the red, Asian-print thong, and the painting of the naked woman warrior straddling a tiger.

"Dude! Moon Panther," shouts an excited Stewart Byfeeld, 25, tucking the painting under his arm. "I totally call this."

I've tagged along on a watered-down version of a dumpster dive. Instead of jumping into a dumpster scavenging for recoverable goods as is the trend, I'm following four seasoned "urban foragers" as they patrol their Toronto neighbourhood on garbage day. They aren't homeless or destitute. Les boyz are artists and musicians, with a keen eye for inspiration.

"This kind of stuff, this is alchemy," Byfeeld says. "This is turning lead into gold ... It manifests in the art we make, and manifests in the music we make. We find stuff people have discarded and left and turn it into something meaningful again and give it a second life."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Aleks Berland's apartment-studio space. Berland, 29, is a university-educated self-employed artist who transforms obsolete media materials like old cassette tapes and speakers into colourful, novelty art pieces -- throwbacks to the '80s and '90s. He chooses mediums that are ubiquitous in people's trash, destined for the technology graveyard.

"If someone like me doesn't find some value in them, they're going straight to the garbage and landfills," he says.

Berland, a fine art and painting major, also furnished half his home with other people's garbage. A desk with a missing leg became usable again with two stacked milk crates and a few books. A new coat of paint and a drawing of a bird transformed an old table into "the centrepiece" of his living room. Berland has an impressively eclectic vinyl collection, with records like Lennon and McCartney: Tijuana Style, an old 45 r.p.m. Yoko Ono record, and The Temptations, all from people's garbage.

This haul has been particularly fruitful. The boys take home books about the Beatles in Korean, with readable musical scores. They pocket classics, like Joseph Conrad, Tennessee Williams, Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot and a slew of sci-fi books. Sam Decter, 27, takes home shirt with a potentially scandalous past, imprinted with a lipstick stain on the collar.

Berland is ecstatic when he's the first to spy an old, classic Lite-Brite toy, left flippantly on the sidewalk. And sure enough, Berland finds some books on cassette tape for his art collection.

"What you've seen are two very good scores," Decter says. "On a good day, ideally you pick up one really awesome thing."

And one of the ironic finds in the garbage heap? A book entitled, 50 Simple Things Your Business Can Do to Save the Earth.



Travis Dallaire is a more traditional dumpster diver.

It's a lifestyle that fits the freegan mandate: "People who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources." To be a freegan is to avoid buying anything to the greatest degree possible, freegans say.

That means rummaging through garbage and living off items like clothes, food, and furniture that are "safe, usable and clean." Groups like Food not Bombs also recover food stuffs and use them to prepare meals to share in public spaces.

When the Bowmanville, Ont., resident goes dumpster diving, he goes armed with a poking stick for foraging, a pocket knife to rip open bags, and protective gloves. He wears long sleeve shirts and pants and brings a knapsack. He recovers old clothes, washes them, and gives what he doesn't need back to charities.

"To me, it just needs to be done," said the 19-year-old. "With the amount of stuff people waste and the consumption that does happen, it's absolutely horrible."

Like the boys from Toronto, Dallaire isn't homeless. He's articulate, well-spoken. He simply chooses to disengage from conventional economics and treats dumpster diving as a job in itself, and in this way is a productive member of society.

"I may not work in socially accepted work, but by putting trash in the community where it belongs and sorting out litter I'm curbing my own consumption and renewing waste."



- By the age of six months, the average Canadian has consumed the same amount of resources as the average person in the developing world consumes in a lifetime.

- In a lifetime, the average North American will throw away 600 times his or her adult weight in garbage. A 68 kilo adult will leave a legacy of 40,825 kilos of trash.

- There are well over 10,000 landfill sites in Canada.

- Currently, 80% of municipal and industrial solid waste in Canada is disposed of by landfilling processes, with the remainder disposed through recycling, resource recovery and incineration.

- One pound of newspaper can be recycled to make six cereal boxes, six egg cartons or 2,000 sheets of writing paper.

- The average baby will use about 10,000 diapers before toilet training. An estimated one billion trees a year are required to produce disposable diapers.


Nearly 55% of every aluminium can is made from recycled aluminum.

Approximately 35%of municipal solidwaste is packaging.

About 1/3 of our waste is paper and paperboard. Another third is yard and kitchen waste. The rest is divided among glass, metals, plastics, textiles, wood and other materials.

34% Glass, metals, plastics, textiles, wood and other materials

33% Paper and paperboard

33% Yard and kitchen waste

Source: www.wrwcanada.com
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