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How Freegans Work

Protesting Image Gallery A group of freegans forages through bags outside a store in New York City. See more protesting pictures.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

For most people, consumerism is an ingrained and unavoidable way of life. We work, we spend, we trash and we buy again. It's a cycle that seems all but inescapable in an industrialized society. But a group of people that call themselves freegans think they've found a way out -- a way to exit the consumer cycle and live off the grid. They scavenge instead of buy, volunteer instead of work and squat instead of rent. But there's a catch -- to live off the grid, they have to eat out of the trash.

That's right. Freegans are Dumpster divers who rescue furniture, clothes, household items and even food cast off by others. Freegans aren't homeless; in fact, most could easily afford to buy their own food. They've instead chosen to live what they believe is an ethical, unadulterated lifestyle and disassociate themselves from capitalism and consumerism.

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The word freegan is a combination of "free" -- as in it's free because you found it in a dumpster -- and "vegan," a vegetarian who abstains from all animal products. Not all freegans are strict vegetarians, however. Some would rather eat found meat, dairy and eggs than let food go to waste.

Many freegans extend their beliefs beyond the food they eat. In addition to Dumpster diving, some freegans squat on abandoned property or grow gardens on empty lots. Some choose not to hold jobs and instead volunteer or teach repair workshops for other freegans.

Because the movement is so ideologically centered, critics accuse freegans of being hypocritical. After all, avoiding purchases in a developed nation is essentially impossible. If you're still buying gas and electricity to cook scavenged food, yo­u're still very much on the grid. Freegans, however, maintain that every little bit counts; each scavenged item helps minimize the cycle of consumption. And with Americans wasting 96 billion pounds of food a year -- a quarter of the nation's supply [source: EPA] -- do freegans have a point? Is society really so wasteful that people can subsist safely and happily on trash alone?

In this article we'll learn about the freegan philosophy, freegan techniques and the historical precedent of gleaning.

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Freegans claim that there is an abundance of edible food discarded daily.
Freegans claim that there is an abundance of edible food discarded daily.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

While the thrill of a good find is motivation enoug­h for some Dumpster divers, freegans are usually driven by their anti-consumerist beliefs. Although freeganism is not an official organization, a Web site, freegan.info, serves as the movement's hub. Many freegans use it to meet other scavengers and learn how to forage. The site advertises classes and scavenging sites and briefs newcomers on the philosophy behind freeganism.

­Freegans believe that consumerism destroys the environment and degrades society. They believe that deforestation, factory farming and unfair labor practices are a natural result of a profit-centered culture. Most importantly, they think that working and buying give implicit approval to capitalism and its sometimes unpleasant side effects.

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So freegans choose not to buy. They resist electronics upgrades and changing fashions. They repair what they already own. They trade amongst themselves. They scavenge for what they need. And because most industrialized societies produce a lot of waste, freegans can usually get by quite comfortably with only the occasional purchase.

Some freegans train-hop or hitchhike to avoid buying cars and gas.
Some freegans train-hop or hitchhike to avoid buying cars and gas.
© Photographer: Radu Razvan | Agency: Dreamstime

Of course when you scavenge all of your food, avoid buying clothes, furniture and gadgets and maybe even squat on abandoned property, you have fewer expenses. With reduced financial dependence, freegans are able to choose jobs that harmonize with freegan ecological and social beliefs. They often find that they can work less and sometimes not at all. Freegans, however, are quick to point out that they're not lazy. Many use their spare time to volunteer, campaign for pet issues, teach repair workshops and, of course, scavenge.

Freegans also believe that society relies too much on oil. Some freegans convert their cars to run on biodiesel. Others walk or bike when possible. Freegan.info even suggests hitchhiking and train hopping, two unconventional alternatives to the standard green transportation solutions of hybrid cars and carbon offsets.

Freegans imagine a future of small, localized economies where people work less and spend more time together. Some even hope for a return to a pre-agricultural state, believing that gatherer cultures are the epitome of civilization.

With such lofty goals, how do freegans actually scrape by? In the next section, we'll learn about urban foraging techniques and freeganism in practice.

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A freegan participates in some urban foraging in Greenwich Village.
A freegan participates in some urban foraging in Greenwich Village.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Most freegans live in cities where trash is high quality and plentiful. New York City, with its density and wealth, is practically the capital of freeganism. Because freegans tend to concentrate in urban areas, most practice urban foraging. Freegans look for furniture or bags of clothing on curbsides, electronics in office Dumpsters and food behind grocery stores and restaurants.

Dedicated freegans usually establish a routine -- a set of Dumpsters they visit weekly or even daily. Many learn when trash goes out and when Dumpsters are unattended. Although it's always illegal to venture behind a fenced-off area marked "no trespassing," laws on Dumpster diving vary considerably. Oddly enough, a 1988 ruling by the Supreme Court, California v. Greenwood, gave tacit approval to Dumpster divers. Although the ruling originally justified the police's search of a suspected narcotics trafficker's trash, freegans use it as an excuse to scavenge food and other cast-off items. Cities with anti-scavenging laws, however, can still fine Dumpster divers.

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Many stores also discourage freegans. They're usually afraid of lawsuits from divers who get sick from discarded food. Stores that donate their excess food claim they leave nothing palatable in the trash. Freegans disagree. Stores throw out large amounts of aesthetically damaged goods like bruised fruit or crushed boxes. They also discard products that have reached their sell-by date. Although sell-by dates provide a general idea of when food will go bad, they are not safety dates. Trash from grocery stores and restaurants is also different from that of the average residential "herbie curbie." Stores usually bag discarded food separately from other trash.

S­ome freegans engage in wild foraging to collect edible plants in woods or parks. Freegan.info hosts guided foraging trips to identify plants that are safe to eat. Freegans also grow their own food. Some create plots on their own property; others practice guerrilla gardening and convert abandoned lots into community gardens. And since freegans understandably do not like to throw things out, many engage in free sharing -- trading at markets where no money changes hands.

Freegans usually have unconventional health care because they work unconventional jobs -- if they work at all. Many refuse to support large pharmaceutical companies and HMOs. As an alternative, some freegans join health care collectives or practice holistic medicine with acupuncture, spinal adjustment, exercise and herbs.

There's more to life, however, than basic Dumpster diving. In the next section, we'll learn about other forms of food recovery.

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Gleaning organizations help feed the homeless with recovered food.
Gleaning organizations help feed the homeless with recovered food.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Freegans might seem like a fairly radical bunch, but the idea of scavenging for food is really nothing new. Gleaning (collecting abandoned food from fields or other sources) has been around since ancient times. It's even mentioned in the Bible as a form of charity: Farmers would harvest their crops and allow the poor to collect the leftovers.

Most modern field gleaners collect food passed over by mechanical harvesting equipment or food that is not marketable because of minor imperfections. Large gleaning organizations like the Society of St. Andrew donate millions of pounds of food to the poor and homeless and attract tens of thousands of volunteers.

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The United States Department of Agriculture promotes food recovery as a way to get fresh, healthy food to America's hungry. In addition to field gleaning, organizations salvage perishable food from wholesale and retail stores, nonperishable items from food drives and prepared food from restaurants and dining halls. Less wasted food also means less money spent on disposal: Trashing excess food costs the nation $1 billion per year [source: EPA]. If someone gets sick from donated food and it's not a case of gross negligence, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects charitable individuals and businesses.

Although freeganism likely has roots in the hobo subculture of the Great Depression, it's also a product of the antiglobalization movements that began in the 1960s. One charitable antiglobalization and antiwar movement, Food Not Bombs, began recovering food in 1980 to provide free vegetarian meals for the hungry.

It's not too surprising that people would eventually make the leap from charitable gleaning to foraging as a way of personal subsistence. Freeganism has spread around the world -- Dumpster divers forage in England, Sweden, Brazil and South Korea. Most freegans, however, try to retain some semblance of charity and generosity. They usually forage in groups but resist the urge to hoard every attractive find. They sometimes eat community dinners -- ­potlucks made from scavenged food. As long as there is edible food and usable products in the trash, people will be there to pick up the waste.

For more information on freegans, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources­

  • "Bacteria and Foodborne Illness." National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/bacteria/index.htm
  • "California vs. Greenwood." Fight Identity Theft. http://www.fightidentitytheft.com/shred_supreme_court.html
  • "A Citizen's Guide to Food Recovery." United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.usda.gov/news/pubs/gleaning/content.htm
  • Douglas, Julie. "What is Freedom?" The Sunday Paper. July 1-7, 2007. http://wetlands-preserve.org/uploadedPictures/SundayPaper.pdf
  • "Food Labeling." United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Food_Product_Dating/index.asp
  • Food Not Bombs. http://www.foodnotbombs.net/firstindex.html
  • Freegan.info. http://freegan.info/
  • "Freegans." BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2006/01/06/insideout_ freegans_feature.shtml
  • Greenwall, Megan. "Diving for Diner." The Washington Post. August 16, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08 /15/AR2006081501248.html
  • Kurutz, Steven. "Not Buying It." The New York Times. June 21, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/21/garden/21freegan.html?ex= 1340164800&en=0f4b14f33c3f52da&ei=5124&partner
  • Relph, Daniela. "No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?" BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6933744.stm
  • Society of St. Andrew. http://www.endhunger.org/index.htm
  • "Waste Not/Want Not." Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/reduce/wastenot.htm
  • "Waste Not/Want Not." Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/reduce/wast_not.pdf

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