Freegans: The Refined Art of Dumpster Diving
In New York City, freegans promote food justice and combat food waste by eating trash.
When considering what to take and what to leave behind, freegans use their senses, touching, smelling, and squeezing to establish which foods are safe or could be safe with cleaning and cooking.
Knotted and shiny black, slumped into bins or piled in heaps, plastic garbage bags are part of the quotidian landscape of any metropolis. The incomprehensible levels of trash we generate, like greenhouse gas emissions and mercury levels in tuna, are linked to an out-of-whack industrialized food system and to our fraught relationship with food. Combating these negatives are environmentalists, organic food promoters, and other activists who search for alternatives while cultivating a closer relationship with what they eat. One of these groups is the freegans, a subculture of dumpster divers and urban gleaners who sift through the contents of seas of garbage bags. They’re not just combating waste; they’re eating it.
Rather than shopping for locally grown Hudson Valley apples or purchasing environmentally sound cleaning products, freegans aim to not purchase at all. Instead, they find, repurpose, share, and barter to obtain food and other necessities like bedding, clothes, toiletries, and housewares.
Contemporary freegan food scrounging can be linked to the Diggers, an anarchist guerilla street theater group that formed in San Francisco, California, in the mid-1960s. The Diggers took their name from the English Diggers, a 17th-century group that envisioned a society free of private property and commercial exchange. San Francisco’s Diggers, a part of the burgeoning bohemian counterculture, engaged in “street theater, anarcho-direct action, and art happenings,” and set up Free Stores in the park, distributing Free Food to whoever wanted it. The food they cooked, served, ate, and gave away was often pillaged from the trash, harvested from their gardens, or stolen from local stores. Warren Belasco writes that the Diggers made a critical contribution to the growing movement of political activism: “They put food at the center of an activist program based on an emerging ecological consciousness.” Food and food waste are the core catalysts for 21st-century freegan praxis.
“Garbage as we know it is a relatively new invention,” writes Heather Rogers in her history of trash in the United States, Gone Tomorrow. Though waste is an inevitable consequence of any civilization, its contents have evolved through the centuries. The tires, broken cell phone chargers, used diapers, and bags of wilting arugula that make up the trash of today are signs of a particularly modern phenomenon. Before the 19th century, waste was primarily comprised of human and animal manure; manufactured goods were rare, consumption was prudent, and food scraps were fed to pigs. What was discarded could largely be reabsorbed into the earth, and what possessions people did have were mended and perpetually reused out of necessity.
Many changes led to a sweeping paradigm shift that bubbled into a consumer economy: economic growth, burgeoning city populations, wartime manufacturing, and overall increasing industrialization created both a huge volume of goods and strong incentives to purchase rather than produce. Manufacturing boomed, lowering the cost of goods, and instead of mending worn-out shoes or salvaging scraps for soup, it became cheaper and easier to purchase new shoes and throw out food scraps. Buying also had the lure of novelty—and a newfangled sheen of patriotic virtue. In 1930, Richardson Wright, the editor of the magazine House & Garden, advised: “Saving and thrift would be the worst sort of citizenship today … to maintain prosperity we must keep the machines working, for when machines are functioning men can labor and earn wages. The good citizen does not repair the old; he buys anew.”
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