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My in-laws brought dumpster food to a dinner party Add to ...

The question

My brother-in-law is a dumpster diver, only for the thrill of it and not because he needs to. Not really something I stress about; everyone has their own happy place. However, things gave cause for concern when his family's contribution to Christmas dinner was food from a dumpster. Still sealed, mind you, but publicly announced as a terrific find. I held my tongue (and gag reflex) and really wanted to say something to them but have no idea where to start. Is there any hope? How does one tactfully address this situation? Ugh.

The answer

Now I’ve officially heard it all.

My hat’s off, in a sense, to your brother-in-law. He’s part of a growing movement of not-necessarily-from-necessity dumpster divers, also known as “freegans,” “urban harvesters” and “reclaimists,” and/or members of a “post-consumer society.”

In just the past three years, there have been at least three documentaries made on the topic.

Dive! follows the adventures of director Jeremy Siefert as he rummages through the garbage of grocery stores in Los Angeles, then confronts supermarket owners over their wasteful ways.

The Aussie film The Leftovers is kind of like a reclaimist Mad Max: Down-under divers take their rubbish-rummaging on the road in a vegetable-oil-fuelled car.

And in I Love Trash, two hard-core freegans rent an unfurnished apartment and, armed with just the clothes on their backs and a flashlight, feed and clothe themselves and furnish the apartment using only items cast off by others.

Dumpster diving has become almost kind of ... hip. In a way, it’s hard to argue with your brother-in-law’s junk-spelunking. Here in Canada, we waste something like 40 per cent of all food produced. And of that, something like a quarter to a third is in unopened packages.

Having said that, maybe in raccoon society it’s the acme of good manners to contribute refuse pried from a green bin to a family feast. Among humans, though, reclaimed garbage is not an acceptable “hostess gift” or potluck contribution.

For one thing, while there’s no doubt your brother-in-law put some effort into his contribution (effort which may have included being covered in coffee grounds and banana peels, and throwing stinking, steaming, soiled diapers over his shoulder), it’s the ultimate “re-gift.”

And he’s kind of imposing his value system on his hosts in an in-your-face way. It’s one thing to bring raw vegan pizza with cashew “cheeze” and/or a tofurkey to a potluck. Now people are going to start plopping down dumpster delicacies? Ixnay. I may be old school, but in my view, you soft-pedal your lifestyle choices when you cross the threshold of someone else’s domicile.

I would also question whether he’s exposing anyone to health risks with his tossed-out offering. Maggots squirm and writhe around in our waste containers! Sealed or not, it could be spoiled, contaminated, or otherwise compromised. Some things are tossed out for a reason!

So, yes, I would say at some point someone needs to talk trash with your brother-in-law.

The good news: It needn’t be you. In fact, I think it shouldn’t be you.

“Brother-in-law” is an ambiguous term. He could be your sister’s husband, your husband’s brother, your brother’s husband, your husband’s sister’s husband. In any case, there’s someone out there who’s closer to him than you are.

That’s the person who should talk to him. I mean, you can’t be the only one squirming and cocking an eyebrow when he presents, with a flourish, “the gift of garbage.” (It’s odd that no one else in this extended family has said anything. Is everyone too polite?)

His spouse, or sibling, should be the one to drop the knowledge on him that his “contributions” are déclassé and infra dig, even in these activist, Occupy-ed times.

You’re certainly within your rights to politely refuse when someone passes you the dumpster doughnuts. And maybe if enough folks do that he’ll get the hint.

But in terms of confronting him, why stick your proboscis into a potential hornets’ nest when you really don’t have to? As my wife, Pam, often says: “Before you open your mouth, ask yourself: ‘What’s the upside, what’s the downside of what I’m about to say?’”

In this case, it’s all downside. You risk offending him, ruffling feathers and causing family friction for something that really does not involve you, reflect on you or require your intervention in any way, shape or form.

Bottom line: Take what you want to say to your brother-in-law re: his dumpster-diving gift-giving, stuff it in a bag, tie it up and toss it in the appropriate receptacle.

David Eddie is the author of Damage Control , the book.

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