Binning sustainability

By Sam Ryan

Dumpster to Dinner Plate | Melissa Davis

The fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket is the epitome of choice anxiety. If nothing else, Melissa Davis’s short film Dumpster to Dinner Plate is an eye-opening reminder that we’ve become unsustainably fussy.

Screening as part of the Big West Festival, the film was said to be exploring the environmental virtue of dumpster diving.

Sadly, the film feels like a survival guide for thrifty university students on a budget, dressed up as environmental activism.

The film follows 24-year-old Joey, a student who works part time and who claims to have been ‘dumpster diving’ for about six months. Except there is no evidence that he actually does. His strategy is more shrewd, and perhaps less sustainable.

We start on the ground, literally, at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market: there are lots of people and lots of discarded fruit and veg. Cut to a couple of lemons rolling around outside and Joey diving to the ground enthusiastically claiming one. From there, he heads not to the bins but to stallholders.

There are around 800 million chronically malnourished people in the world. In the developed world, we’ve become undisciplined and nonchalant about food, accustomed to seeing an abundance of it everywhere.

Fresh food, in particular, has been drastically affected by market competition: each supplier vies to offer the freshest, consumers come to expect near-perfect produce (and spend far too long selecting the best looking apple), and perception becomes more important than actual quality.

One of the poignant statistics Davis highlights in the film is that 20 to 40 per cent of fruit and vegetables are rejected because they don’t meet the high cosmetic standards of consumers.

This astonishing fact is presented and left hanging, rather than leapt on and pulled apart. The film then cuts straight to the delicious feast Joey has prepared for his housemates, using produce that was probably destined to become part of the 20 to 40 per cent.

I say ‘probably’ because it is never actually divulged. There is footage of Joey grabbing food from a fairly clean, nondescript receptacle, although the camera has been placed inside, looking up at him, leaving doubt as to whether it is actually a bin.

While it’s true that hundreds of millions of people in the world are starving, humans have already reached the point of producing enough food to feed 10 billion people – a population we don’t expect to reach for another 35 years.

Joey approaches stallholder Zac, who is all too happy to fill two bags with produce he didn’t think he could sell. Joey takes this home and provides a meal for his whole house, “free of cost to anyone”.

But the dilemma arises because by not paying for the produce, Joey has actually placed a cost on the (albeit willing) stallholder, and reinforced the notion that these products have no commercial value. To pay for them would have been a more appropriate act of sustainability.

The film also fails to discuss why food wastage continues to be such a problem.

While it’s true that hundreds of millions of people in the world are starving, humans have already reached the point of producing enough food to feed 10 billion people – a population we don’t expect to reach for another 35 years.

This overproduction is troubling in terms of both wastage and distribution, but it highlights another issue. Global malnutrition is a problem of inequality rather than scarcity. People in severe poverty cannot afford to buy the food they need, no matter how much produce is salvaged from bins.

However, it would be unfair to expect in-depth analysis from a film you could almost watch start to finish in the time it takes to read this review. And it does give pause for thought about how sanitised our perception of food has become and how easily we cast it aside – because we can afford to.

Perhaps it’s unfair criticism of an eager, independent filmmaker in the unforgiving Netflix age, and, if nothing else, Davis’s film does instil in viewers a desire to go out and find out more about the issues touched on ever so briefly.

View Dumpster to Dinner Plate online.

Sam Ryan is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne.


Brolgas art work by Phoebe McIlwraith

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