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Freegans: Dumpster diving for the environment

It’s a Sunday evening in Newtown, Sydney and I’ve just been handed a plate of vegetable casserole. It looks and smells nice. I hesitate briefly before wolfing it down. It tastes delicious, just like something I might have made at home – except all the ingredients were sourced from supermarket bins rather than shelves. The people who made the casserole are two students, Else and Fiona, who are taking part in a Food Not Bombs campaign on King Street, whereby food that would otherwise have gone to waste is reclaimed, made into a meal and served, free of charge, to the general public, including the homeless.

Tonight’s action is part of a global movement to protest war and poverty, but getting their food from bins – known as ‘dumpster diving’ – is a regular activity for these young women, who identify as freegans. “I spent a while last year living and working on organic farms in Europe,” says Else, 22. “Now I’ve come back to live in Sydney I can see the way people live in the city can be wasteful so freeganism for me is a way of reducing my impact on the environment by eating food that’s otherwise going to waste.”

If the thought of rummaging through bins grosses you out, you’re not alone. “I remember my first dumpster dive – it was quite shocking,” recalls Fiona, 19. “It was something I’d never heard of before a group of people I was travelling with told me about it. I was curious and excited but I have to say when I got to the bin, I wasn’t getting in there to get food out like some people were and I was ready to go wash my hands afterwards!” So what changed her mind about the practice? “Seeing the sheer amount of food that’s thrown out every day and realising what a waste it is,” says Fiona.

A big waste

Statistics from the Australia Institute’s 2005 report ‘Wasteful Consumption in Australia’ back up Fiona’s claims. A survey of 1644 people found that on average each Australian household wasted $1226 on items purchased but unused in 2004. Food accounts for the most wasteful consumption in Australia, according to the report, with $2.9 billion of fresh food, $630 million of uneaten takeaway food, $876 million of leftovers, $596 million of unfinished drinks and $241 million of frozen food all ending up in the rubbish – a total waste of $5.3 billion on all forms of food in 2004.

And this doesn’t include all the fruit, vegetables and other edible items from supermarkets and other food outlets that end up in the dumpsters each day. According to Planet Ark, Australian homes and business combined throw away more than 3 million tonnes of food each year.

A large proportion of this excess food ends up in landfill, a move that’s potentially devastating for the environment. “Environmentally this is a serious issue because decomposing organic matter emits methane gas which is more than 20 times more dangerous for the environment than carbon dioxide,” says Karen Billington, spokesperson for Planet Ark. “Additionally this mass wastage takes up space in our already over-crowded landfills and is an extremely threatening misappropriation of our natural resources given the vast food shortages around the world.”

Rejecting consumer culture

It’s becoming aware of these sobering facts that led Ash, 24, to renounce consumer culture and lead a freegan lifestyle. He lives in a 10-bed squat under a bridge, where he and his partner host couchsurfers through the couchsurfing website (Couchsurfing is a volunteer-based worldwide network connecting travellers with members of local communities, who offer free accommodation). Ash gets his food and alcohol from dumpsters and shares it with everyone in the squat, builds new structures for his home, volunteers at an anarchist bookshop, and sits in on Japanese lectures at university for a “free” education.

“Whenever I am asked to summarise freeganism in one sentence, I like to say that it is participation in the free economy,” he explains. “That’s because to me, it is as much about giving for free – activism, volunteering, gardening, art, or whatever – as it is about receiving for free. Freeganism could be seen as a form of politics, philosophy, lifestyle choice or an economic system, and it is all of these at times. At the root, however, it is simply an awareness of the damage that the growth of capitalism is wreaking on people, animals and the planet at large, and a recognition that buying into a corrupt system implicates us in its wrongs.”

Ash has dumpstered everything from Kenyan runner beans during the famine in 2008 to grapes from India, Columbian bananas and even a bin full of ‘fairtrade’ bananas, all of which has forced him to confront the politics behind much of our food. “Nothing can be clearer to me than the injustice of importing food from countries full of starving people and then having the audacity to throw it away while it is perfectly edible,” he asserts.

“Nothing could be more telling of the fact that no way is a just price paid for even ‘fairtrade’ items than finding them dumped en-masse because it was cheaper than trying to sell them. All of this is just considering food, but luxury ‘cash crops’ share the same fate too. Tea, coffee and sugar all end up in the rubbish, but with the added insult that [poor] countries have given over valuable food-producing land to grow these things for us.” Misconceptions

Else, Fiona and Ash come across as intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate souls, but society’s impression of people who source things for free is often negative. They’re condemned for being ‘freeloaders’, and some ‘anti-freegan’ Facebook groups refer to them as human vermin. One of the biggest misconceptions about freegans is that they are taking and eating rotten food and risk contracting infection from salmonella or e-coli.

“That’s not true,” says Fiona. “It’s very obvious when food is bad or edible. I always take it home and wash it before I eat it, cut out the bad bits from fruit and vegetables and I’ve never been sick from eating dumpstered food. Most of the time [shops] throw things out before the use-by date – often a week before – which I find really bizarre.”

The only real risk is from eating dumpstered meat, which is already a rotting corpse to begin with, or dairy. Interestingly, although the word ‘freegan’ was originally a mix of ‘free’ and ‘vegan’, many freegans are vegan (so as not to support animal abuse industries), except when it comes to dumpstered food, arguing that it’s better to eat non-vegan food that would otherwise go to landfill.

Like most people the thought of eating food from bins didn’t appeal to me – hence my initial hesitation to eat the vegetable casserole offered to me this evening – but when Else and her house mate Alain offer to take me dumpstering I agree. Usually they go on bikes but this evening we walk.

Our first stop is a local bakery. After rifling through several bin bags, we come away with a selection of pastries and bread – all in good condition and perfectly edible. Then it’s off to a nearby grocery store. Two large, overflowing dumpsters await us, full of fruit and vegetables. It’s a bit stinky, but we get stuck in.

To my surprise there are several bags of potatoes, sealed and in-date, along with some ripe plums, apples, avocadoes and carrots. Two boxes of melons adjacent to the dumpsters look appealing but on closer inspection are found to be mouldy, so we leave them – in the freegan world, there is a saying, ‘If in doubt, chuck it out’. After my first experience of dumpster diving, I can see the benefits and happily pocket a couple of nice avocadoes and a plum for my lunch the following day.

Going freegan

There are several ways to adopt a freegan lifestyle, of which dumpster diving is only one aspect. Before you throw something away, ask yourself if it can be mended or made into something else. Instead of buying new clothes, organise ‘swap parties’ with your friends. Don’t overbuy food: with fresh produce especially, buy smaller amounts and go to the shops more often. Use leftovers to make tomorrow’s lunch.

Delving into bins may not be for everyone, but having tried it I can say that it’s not as bad as it sounds and can slash your weekly food budget without compromising your health or tastebuds. So if you are keen to try dumpstering, go with a friend or two for safety, particularly at night. Be aware that it’s technically stealing although none of the freegans interviewed for this article had heard of anyone being arrested or charged. If a member of staff asks you to move on, don’t argue, just go to the next bin, and don’t leave a mess.

If you don’t want something, place it carefully back for the next person. And remember, it’s not’s just food you can find in dumpsters. Else, Fiona, Alain and Ash have found hair dyes, furniture, clothes, toiletries, toys, camping equipment, a mini-trampoline, crockery, cleaning products, temporary tattoos, princess tiaras, toasters, two laptop computers and an i-Pod.

On the way back from our dumpstering trip, Else and Alain spot a discarded black canvas shopping trolley. One wheel has come off, but other than that it looks smart, and according to Alain, the wheel can easily be re-affixed. The couple place the night’s food haul in it and push it home. The best things in life, it seems, are indeed free.

This article was previously published on The Scavenger website

Katrina Fox

Katrina Fox is a freelance writer and editor, originally from London and based in Sydney, Australia since 2001. Katrina is the editor-in-chief of the online portal The Scavenger and is the editor of several books on topics as diverse as sex and gender identity, hypnosis and self-help, plus she is a human rights and animal rights advocate. Read more about Katrina here.

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