Photo by William Murphy, Flickr CC

Most people think of garbage with disgust, as it recalls images of filth and dirt and smells of rotting food. So, it’s not surprising that dumpster divers – people who salvage thrown away food – are often seen as “dirty” by mainstream society. As sociologist Erving Goffman famously argued, stigmatized groups are scorned by wider society who see them as outsiders and deviant.

Gianmarco Savio, a professor at St. Lawrence University, spent months hanging around dumpsters behind grocery stores in Manhattan, sorting through trash himself, and attending events coordinated by a dumpster diving organization. He got to know people in the community and got an inside view of what motivated people to dumpster dive. Savio found that many dumpster divers in New York City reject the label “dirty”. They are pushing back against stigmatization by creating an organization to promote “dumpstering” and developing a supportive community and collective identity.

Dumpster divers create a sense of community by sharing knowledge about where and when to find the best food, developing their own informal code of ethics, and looking out for each other’s safety. They realize that the practice is stigmatized, but don’t express guilt or shame for participating. People who are active in the dumpster diving organization even seek to actively change public perceptions. They try to promote the practice, making it more visible and acceptable to the public by doing things like inviting people to take trash tours, running a website, and getting media attention. Group members assert that dumpstering is a political act and part of a broader environmental sustainability or a “freegan” lifestyle that avoids buying things as a way to boycott capitalism.

Spending time with freegans and dumpster divers in New York City can shed light on how stigmatized groups can resist being labeled and change their public image. Savio suggests that informal communities can help people reduce the negative effects of stigma by creating a positive identity, while formal groups and public actions can go even further in challenging the stigma itself.