Freegans salvage for economic relief and political views
By Jake Forney
Dumpster diving, garbage picking, gleaning. There are a handful of terms; all of them mean picking food, and often other items, out of trash containers. And though it may be hard for some to believe, many people do this by choice–not out of need. While societal standards tend to look down on this practice, many people dumpster dive with pride.
“Every meal I eat comes out of dumpsters in Boston,” said Elizabeth Pickard, an Ithaca College alumna, who graduated last fall.
Pickard said she salvages food out of dumpsters not because she doesn’t have the money to afford food in stores, but because of her political beliefs. She adheres to what’s known as freeganism.
Freeganism is a relatively new term, being coined within the past decade. It encompasses a set of values about food, shelter and interaction with the environment and society. Essentially, freeganism is an attempt to live outside of our capitalist system in a way that reduces negative impacts on the environment.
Not every dumpster diver is a freegan, but most freegans are dumpster divers. Dumpster diving is only one component of freeganism, a school of thought that guides more than just a person’s diet. Freegans not only attempt to reuse the waste of others, but also attempt to minimize their own waste. They recycle and if they find something has fallen useless to them, they try to find someone else who could use it. Often “free markets” are held, very much like a flea market except, well, everything is free. The idea of reducing waste is held above commerce.
According to Pickard, “[Freeganism] is basically a way of taking back what people should have anyway. Food is a right. It shouldn’t be paid for or worked for.”
Among other items, she said that earlier this week she came away with a bounty of chicken tenders, three gallons of frosting, 20 lbs. of snow peas and six pairs of skis.
“I got other things too, but those things were kind of funny. I mean, what am I going to do with 20 lbs. of snow peas?” she said with a laugh.
Pickard gave some of them to Food Not Bombs, a charity organization that feeds those in need using items recovered from dumpsters, which she contributes to by salvaging. (But they wouldn’t take the 20 lbs. of snow peas because even they didn’t know what to do with that many.)
What separates dumpster diving from picking food out of household garbage cans is that everything salvaged from dumpsters are pre-consumed goods-leftover stuff the store couldn’t sell. Half-eaten hamburgers typically aren’t salvaged, but goods that are often still in their original packaging. It’s not uncommon to find items that are perfectly fine aside from the fact that the sell-by date has passed.
Freegans dumpster dive for more reasons than the idea that food is a right. Many also salvage items beyond the culinary (like Pickard’s newly acquired skis) to prevent perfectly usable things from taking up space in landfills. Others dumpster dive in an effort to live “off the grid,” per se. Some find that regardless of how consciously they try to purchase their food, they still end up contributing to organizations whose politics they don’t agree with. If it’s not the food company, it’s the supermarket; if it’s not the supermarket, it’s the shipping company; and so on So rather than buying food from these companies, freegans take what they can find. Those falling on the more radical end of the freegan spectrum often have ideals that mingle with anarchism, such as shoplifting.
Gregor Brous, owner of a local bakery, said that he is generally understanding when encountering people who are salvaging items from his dumpsters.
“It depends on whether they seem to be offensive in any way, or whether they seem dangerous … or obnoxious. If they’re reasonable about it, and respectful, we let them [continue salvaging],” Brous said.
His business often discards bagels and bread. On occasion, he said, entrées such as lasagna or chicken dishes make it to the dumpster. Before tossing the goods, they try to reuse them internally by making bagel chips and breadcrumbs. Then they donate to food pantries. The dumpster is the third stop for their surplus goods.
Occasionally Brous runs into problems with people trespassing or becoming competitive. “I’ve had people come who have come in the back door of the bakery–inside. And I felt like that was crossing a line that they should not be crossing because, to me, now there’s a question about theft and them deciding what’s okay to take,” he said with a laugh. He said that usually people are cooperative, but several times a year the cops have to be called.
“I have had to intercede at times when there was competition because we sometimes have conflicts where you’ll have more people that want to take product,” Brous said. “Sometimes I’ve had to say, ‘You guys gotta chill, otherwise there’s not gonna be any for anybody.”
Typically divers try to be as little a nuisance for businesses as they can. Zeke Compton, a diver in Ithaca, explains there is an unwritten rulebook for diving.
“There is dumpster diving etiquette. Not everyone follows it. I try to follow it,” Compton said. “You don’t make things overly hard for the employees of the store. You don’t rip open bags of garbage and not tie them up; you don’t leave garbage strewn around the dumpster. Generally, if the area is messy, I tend to pick it up afterwards and make things easier for them. Generally we try to… be good to the people and most of the time the store employees don’t really care.”
Compton also explained that, as a result of the generally waste-conscious mindset of Ithaca, it is a more difficult place for dumpster divers: “It is a bit more difficult [in Ithaca] than, say, Brooklyn, because more people are more conscious of what they’re doing here. It’s a much more conscious city than a lot I’ve been to, and there’s not a huge amount of waste. Like for instance, I never find Styrofoam containers full of food like I did in New York City. That happens all the time there. You can always guarantee yourself some Chinese food.”
Many people who are not full-on freegans dumpster dive for similar reasons, but aren’t aware they hold ideals in common with freegans. Colin Howard, a senior at Ithaca College, said he salvages to keep perfectly useful items from collecting at landfills. When asked if he was a freegan, his response was a furrowed brow and, “Free-gan? What’s that?”
Similarly, Alison Lucas, a senior at Indiana University, is another dumpster diver. She had heard the term freegan a few times, but was unclear on its meaning. After being briefed on the ideals of freeganism, she smiled and said, “That sounds like my dream.”
Other elements of freeganism include green modes of transportation such as biking and walking. When using automobiles, often biodiesel is the fuel of choice.
Along with believing that food is a right, freegans hold that shelter is also a right. This translates into squatters, another word, like dumpster divers, that some say with a sneer. But freegans consider squatting a prideful and purposeful disposition. Why waste a an empty building while people who are braving the elements on the streets could be warm and dry?
A final piece of the freegan puzzle is the ability to work less. The effort to work less stems not from laziness, but from the desire to live independently of what many might refer to as “the system.” The idea is that all of the previously mentioned principles of freeganism lead one to not have to work as much. All food, and other items, are salvaged or come upon by free markets, so money becomes less of a necessity, thereby allowing people to spend more time in their gardens, growing food to eat, furthering the cycle of self-reliance and independence from the grid.
Elements of freeganism can be seen threaded throughout Ithaca. The Seneca St. College Town Bagels has clearly marked compost and recycle receptacles. And the single trash can is marked “Trash (if you must).”
Another freegan-minded organization is RIBs (Recycle Ithaca’s Bikes), a bicycle reuse co-op located on Buffalo Street that accepts bike donations from the community. The bikes are then either fixed up by volunteers or donated to a charity that ships them to Africa. Anyone can get a bike at RIBS in exchange for a few hours of helping out, either by cleaning the workshop, helping others with bike repairs or any number of other odd jobs.
Even if other aspects of freeganism have become more socially accepted, dumpster diving still remains an area of difference. Pickard said that some friends had been confronted by an employee when salvaging for Food Not Bombs at a dumpster at a Trader Joe’s supermarket. When they explained that, “we’re just collecting the food that you’re wasting,” the employee let them continue. But Pickard still expressed frustration about their reaction.
“No one gets upset,” she said, “but no one’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Let me hook you up some carrots,’ or something like that.” In essence, it’s hard to get people past their biases of trash-picking as something done by people who are lazy.
While dumpster diving may not quite fit the tired cliché, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” it does make the statement that, “One man’s trash is another man’s political declaration–and dinner.”
Jake Forney is a senior cinema and photography major. E-mail him at [email protected]