Thursday, June 21, 2007

Freegans: They’re Not Down With Capitalism

Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article on a burgeoning movement of modern-day scavengers called "freegans.” These are folks who reject the consumer economy and live by dumpster diving. They aren’t bums, many are middle class and have jobs, they just don’t see the need to go out and buy a bunch of crap when they can get what they want for free:
Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism. They forage through supermarket trash and eat the slightly bruised produce or just-expired canned goods that are routinely thrown out, and negotiate gifts of surplus food from sympathetic stores and restaurants.

Before you go “eww, that’s gross,” take a moment to think of your own garbage, or maybe if you’re more thrifty, think of the trash from your workplace or your neighborhood. For instance, there are several houses on my street that are rented to college students and when moving day comes, it’s a regular Wal-Mart shopping spree on trash day. One year, the kids left a satellite TV programming box in the trash. That’s the principle at work here:

As of 2005, individuals, businesses and institutions in the United States produced more than 245 million tons of municipal solid waste, according to the E.P.A. That means about 4.5 pounds per person per day. The comparable figure for New York City, meanwhile, is about 6.1 pounds, according to statistics from the city’s Sanitation Department.

“We have a lot of wealthy people, and rich people throw out more trash than poor people do,” said Elizabeth Royte, whose book “Garbage Land” (Little, Brown, 2005) traced the route her trash takes through the city. “Rich people are also more likely to throw things out based on style obsolescence — like changing the towels when you’re tired of the color.”

Dumpster diving isn’t just for young kids on the far left, the kind you see protesting G8 summits and the like; there’s actually a growing movement among social justice and “red letter” Christians. Sojourners Magazine covered this movement last fall in their article, The Tao Of Dumpster Diving. Author Ryan Beiler, Sojourners web editor and a dumpster diver since 2005, says he subsists largely on food reclaimed from dumpsters. Here he explains why:

Reason number one--you get a lot of really, really good food really, really free. I often come away with a decent segment of the food pyramid: vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, and almost always lots of bread. And we’re not talking Wonder Bread--we’re talking sprouted wheat berry, pita, ciabatta, foccacia, and any number of Mediterranean-themed baked goods.

Though I’ll occasionally supplement my dumpster bounty with a trip to the natural foods co-op for some local produce or organic oats for homemade granola (bring on the stereotypes), I’ve come to rely mostly on society’s waste for my provision. As Jesus taught, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’... Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:32). In this spirit, dumpstering’s spontaneity is both liberating and satisfying. Instead of the anxiety of bargain-hunting among the throngs at corporate übermarkets, I enjoy the surprises of late-night expeditions and never worry about finding enough to eat.

BEYOND BASIC NECESSITIES, there’s also the allure of the big score. On my very first dumpster run, I went into Homer Simpson-drool mode at finding several pounds of smoked salmon--a delicacy I could never justify buying in real life. I ate it three meals a day for a week. It’s really great with eggs.

On a subsequent trip, I found six jars of caviar. I’ve also developed an addiction to grocery-store sushi (all pre-cooked or veggie). Just tonight I had a simple dinner of dumpster fare: soup and bread. But the soup was lobster bisque, and the bread was a lovely sourdough boule.

I never thought I’d pull food from a dumpster to feed my family but hey, you never know. Caviar? Lobster bisque? Sourdough boule? I have to say, as a city dweller, this intrigues me.

I can’t call myself a dumpster diver, but I have been known to pull something I wanted out of the trash; in fact, when I first moved to Nashville I found a perfectly lovely bamboo trunk on my first trip to the dumpster at my new apartment complex. I pulled it out, cleaned it off and it became the centerpiece of my living room for years afterward.

One of the worst things I ever heard about Wal-Mart was that stores padlock their trash dumpsters. Former Wal-Mart employees have told me of the perfectly good food and merchandise that is thrown away on a daily basis, yet Wal-Mart locks people out of its trash. When your trash is so valuable that it requires padlocks, something is seriously wrong. Hey, Wal-Mart, if it’s thatvaluable, try donating this stuff to a shelter, OK?

Americans generate a lot of trash. Contemporary American society, indeed our entire economy, is based on marketing consumer goods that folks don’t really need. When you buy stuff you don’t really need, it makes it a lot easier to throw it out later.

Which makes me wonder: why do we need to be buying it in the first place?