A New Meaning for “Waste not, Want not”



Written by Leiba Estrin

Freegan trash tour

Following the sixties’ hippie movement, a new counterculture emerged, inspired by the sixties era. But instead of eliciting admiring looks and words of praise from the majority of onlookers, noses start to wrinkle in disgust as many of us turn our backs on this alternative lifestyle.

It begins harmlessly enough. The worthy concepts “reduce, reuse and recycle” outlined on the group’s main website ring familiarly in the ears of other environmentalists. Does the word “freegan” sound familiar? There are two types of freegans: the first group subsists solely off of free food, namely, food from the garbage. They do not necessarily keep to a rigid vegan diet since they eat what they find. There is something repulsive about food the moment it touches the rim of a trashcan that renders it completely unappealing. The second group of freegans sounds like a more healthy and positive freegan lifestyle than the first group: it consists of people who are primarily vegan and find alternative food sources besides mainstream supermarkets. Some of their food is free, but they are mostly concerned with a healthy lifestyle diet than with conserving money.

Social researcher Ferne Edwards provides the following perspective about the seriousness of the freegan mission, “Jim, my freegan friend, is not some prankster playing around in a garbage bin.  Every time he lifts a dumpster lid, he reveals the world’s waste on a platter…” Turning this diet into a way of life means that these people are really searching for meaning in their lives.  They seem to be striving to rise above materialism and selfish desires for “stuff.”

Freegans like to think they are acting with the noblest of intentions, but their actions often just come across as hypocritical.  Ferne Edwards reported two different truths about freegans in an article she wrote for the Alternatives Journal.  She claims that freegans prefer to avoid the kind of food that is produced by industrial agriculture for two reasons.  The first is that they fear contamination by chemicals and industrial waste, and the second reason is they suspect the farmers of indulging in animal cruelty.  Meanwhile, freegans indulge in dumpster diving, usually in the garbages of large supermarket chains.  These supermarkets ironically carry many foods from various industrial agricultural farms, farms that engage in behavior that is against freeganist principals.

So my biggest question to freegans is this: do you not have a problem with chemicals and animal cruelty by the time the food is in the trash?  Freegan Jerry Adler answers this with a quote from Freegan.info, “After years of trying to boycott products from unethical corporations responsible for human rights violations, environmental destruction and animal abuse, many of us found that no matter what we bought we ended up supporting something deplorable.” I interpreted this statement to mean that by eating the very food they are trying to boycott, even if it is unwanted food that is in the dumpster, freegans end up supporting the mainstream food industry in their own way.

A more productive alternative to dumpster diving that some freegans engage in is rescuing food before it is thrown out. Food Not Bombs is one such international organization set up by the freegan movement.  Good Samaritan laws in parts of the world such as Canada, the U.S. and Australia dictate that people can rescue food before it is disposed of and use it to feed the hungry.  Because of this, some of us question why freegans choose to devote their time and energy towards eating food from the garbage rather than trying to feed the poor or lobbying on their behalf.  And it seems that some of them do. But many freegans maintain that they are making a strong political statement by dumpster diving for sustenance.  A number of them claim that the main purpose of this diet is to get other people to stop and think about the food industry.  Members of the New York freegan lifestyle gather in groups, turning their eating habits into socializing events. Princeton University student Alexander Barnard is an active freegan who maintains that the point of freeganism is not about saving money and living off of society’s waste.  It is about making a difference.

Barnard claims that he has never gotten sick from eating food obtained from the dumpster, nor does he know of anyone else who has.  His method of staying healthy is to pick out the food that does not appear moldy or looks unprotected from the elements.  Some of his peers assert that meat from the store contains more bacteria than vegan food from the garbage.  His hope is that this practice will inspire others to conserve more to the point that dumpster diving will no longer be necessary. It would be so much better to find a way to get to the food before it hits the dumpsters.

Although freegans carry the best intentions to save the earth from too much waste and want to make a difference in the world, they might consider turning their passion towards causes that are more sanitary.  If they really want to help the world, there are other alternatives such as lobbying on behalf of the homeless and hungry, buying food from local farms, and volunteering at soup kitchens or animal shelters.  It does not mean that they have to stop acting within the environment, but they could use their time to develop other non-profit organizations similar to Food Not Bombs.  They could also pick up litter and continue to reuse and recycle to further their intention to remain conscientious citizens.

Freegan eating from the trash

Sources used:

Adler J. The Noble Scavenger on the Living Room Couch. Newsweek 2007; 150(14):48. Accessed May 7, 2013.

Edwards F. Dumpster Dining. Alternatives Journal 2006; 32(3):16-17. Accessed May 7, 2013.

Food Not Bombs homepage

Freegan.info homepage

Kelley R. The Freegan Ride. Newsweek 2007; 150(14):46-47. Accessed May 7, 2013.

Kolowich S. Princeton Student Finds Passion in Garbage. Chronicle of Higher Education 2009; 55(24): A6. Accessed May 7, 2013.

Persson, H. Life from a Freegan Perspective. The Environmental Magazine 2011; 22(4):17-18. Accessed May 7, 2013.

Photo #1 taken from Howstuffworks.com

Photo #2 taken from Trinityrich.wordpress.com

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