Freegans: The Refined Art of Dumpster Diving

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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.”

It is now estimated that 30 to 50 percent of food production in the United States is wasted; the EPA estimates that food waste is the single largest component, by weight, of garbage in America, a startling statistic to those who have never pawed through trash outside of supermarkets. It seems obvious that food placed in the trash is inedible: that it has spoiled, been dropped on the floor. This is true in many cases; however, lots of good food is discarded out of carelessness, laziness, hypersensitivity to expiration dates, and cosmetic damage.

Just 25 percent of these trash-bound foodstuffs could feed more than 20 million people if safely recovered, according to the Department of Agriculture. City Harvest, one of New York City’s largest food reclamation nonprofits, saves 71,000 pounds a day from the street, an admirable statistic but still a mere drop in the bucket. The Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects stores that donate unsellable food from lawsuits in all 50 states, but many store managers either are not aware of their legal protection or are simply too apathetic to change their processes. Sometimes they are even prickly about their trash-bound food. Take NYC Union Square Whole Foods employee Ralph Reese. He set aside a tuna fish sandwich that was bound for the dumpster, openly admitting that he was planning on eating it; he was later fired for “misconduct.” “This is the outrage of the system,” said a trash tour leader about food waste bureaucracy. “They are concerned about profit, not feeding people, what makes sense, or the better good.”

“Dumpster diving,” for all its gritty glory, is not the most accurate term for the urban scrounging that usually occurs. In New York City, there are very few dumpsters; residential trash is placed in metal trashcans, while commercial businesses tend to pile their trash bags directly on the sidewalk. On internet-organized dumpster diving outings, veteran divers, one of whom is designated as the leader for the evening, take newbies on tours to teach the finer points of dumpster diving. Though the practice is a fairly straightforward endeavor, tips (like carrying lots of bags to collect the bounty), hints (heavier bags tend to contain more foodstuffs), and physical instruction, all aid in the process. The designated leaders are those who regularly attend and events. Everyone is welcome to attend a trash tour; however, there are specific tours to which media are invited that are geared toward providing a clear view of and correct information about freeganism to journalists.

Since store owners can receive harsh fines for messy or out-of-place garbage, some are wary of people rummaging through their trash. Because freegans depend on the trash sources for food, they tend to be as tidy as possible when they dive. One diver mentioned the symbiotic relationship freegans had with the stores: “While we may hate the waste, we don’t hate the stores, or the people who work at the stores … we have a pretty good track record, and we don’t want them to make it so we cannot recover the waste.” Divers carefully open and explore bags, keeping the sidewalk free of debris in consideration of the needs of pedestrians. Bags are then tied closed and left in a heap that’s usually more orderly than it was pre-dive.

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. To protect against possible pathogens, the bulk of the recovered food is taken home for cleaning, sorting, and cooking. Foods without packaging, such as vegetables and fruits, undergo extensive washing, reexamination, and the paring off of rotted parts at home. Fruits, vegetables, and grains are some of the most popular and sought-after items, at least in part because most divers are avid cooks, preferring to make their own food at home rather than eating prepared items. This is due to both dietary preferences (many divers keep a vegan or vegetarian diet) and a sense of personal enjoyment through the craft of cooking for oneself and one’s friends. There is even an online cooking show video blog, Freegan Kitchen, dedicated to teaching safe and healthy recipes made from found food.

Many divers suggest using “common sense” when considering what is safe to take from the trash. This skill is absent in shoppers inside of a supermarket, the stacks of unblemished produce, cans, and packaged food assure customers that the food is unadulterated. Printed expiration dates prove a food’s purity, freeing the customer from having to examine the product or consider its condition.

This common reliance on industry guidelines and printed expiration dates leads to a set of assumptions about the properties of foods. Expiration dates are not definitive–a carton of milk that is left out of the fridge on a hot day, for example, will spoil much earlier than its printed date, while a package of bacon will probably keep much longer than its date–and the rules for setting them change from state to state. The highly processed, packaged, and nonperishable foods we rely on have furthered our disconnect with what we put into our bodies. In Food Fears, Alison Blay-Palmer argues that this distanced relationship with nature, our bodies, and our food has created in us a sense of loss of control when we’re considering what to consume. Our fear of food is exacerbated by outbreaks of E. coli and other serious pathogens in our food system. Dumpster divers confront these food fears by challenging notions of sanitation. They use their own senses and judgment to determine what is safe to eat, rejecting the conventions and guidelines imposed by supermarkets, the USDA, and mass culture.

While there is safe and copious food to be found, there is, equally often, rotting garbage. As physically off-putting as it may be to come in close contact with decomposing matter, the experience generates a fuller understanding of the natural progression of foods in the natural world. This process is a reclamation of preindustrial ways of understanding food and matter that rely on personal knowledge and experience, not market standards or industry guidelines.

“I’m not as hardcore as other freegans,” said a young Italian diver as she slipped on a pair of yellow dishwashing gloves before searching through a bag full of messy yogurt containers. Some seasoned dumpster divers will carry multiple plastic bags and wet wipes; others wear prophylactic gloves, carry flashlights to illuminate the contents of the trash bag, and squirt on hand sanitizer after a dive.

It is easy to understand the public aversion to dumpster diving. Even if freegans take sanitary precautions and wear gloves, and even if the food they glean is protected by packaging, it is socially understood to be trash. My own notions of what is disgusting were challenged when I first ate food taken from the trash. It was a prepackaged salad. On first bite, I chewed slowly, searching my palate for any twinge of rottenness, any mild off-flavor. I swallowed. The salad was fine but I couldn’t quite convince myself of it: I tossed it, half-eaten, back into the trash. The popular New York-based television show Seinfeld riffed on the perceived boundary between trash and food in an episode (“The Gymnast,” 1994) where George Costanza plucks an éclair from the garbage. In this exchange, George is discussing with his friend Jerry the placement of the éclair in the trash:

George: It wasn’t down in; it was sort of on top.
Jerry: But it was in the cylinder.
George: Above the rim.
Jerry: Adjacent to refuse, is refuse.
George: It was on a magazine, and it still had the doily on it.
Jerry: Was it eaten?
George: One little bite.
Jerry: Well, that’s garbage.
George: I know who took the bite. It was her aunt.
Jerry: You, my friend, have crossed the line that divides MAN and BUM. You are now a BUM.

Trash, regardless of what the plastic bags contain, is psychologically dirty, unclean, tainted, and unfit for human consumption. Once food has been tossed into a bin or plastic bag and has been moved to the destination of removal–the curb, the street, the dumpster–it has moved from one zone (food, acceptable to eat) to another (trash, unacceptable to eat). When a person dives into the trash and eats what he finds there, he commits a transgressive act and is marked as “other”–one of those who eat trash, who eat the inedible. George Costanza, because he decides to salvage a discarded pastry from the trash, is designated by Jerry as a trash eater, a bum, something less than fully human.

Not surprisingly, multiple freegans mentioned to me that they prefer to dumpster dive with a group because it is easier to work up the nerve to break the social taboo while others are committing the same infraction. There is a palpable sense of disgust, shock, and confusion that emanates from well-dressed citizens when they see you rifling through a trash pile. As one freegan put it, crossing that line is “less of a skill and more of just working up the courage to do it.”

In some instances freegans make crossing the line a public spectacle. On tours to which media have been invited, dumpster divers will pile the found bounty into a heap on the sidewalk–a shrine of edible food waste they call a “display” for journalists, cameras, and pedestrians. The display–piles of wilting romaine, crates of softening tomatoes, scallions, and potatoes, packages of smoked salmon, cases of frozen Halloween cookies–shows the wastefulness of the stores from which the food came. This spectacle upsets the socially perceived change that occurs when good food moves from the supermarket shelf to the curbside: by making the trashed food visible, freegans both highlight the quantity and quality of food that has been thrown away and bring into question the social stigma around eating it.

If eating trash marks one as “other,” there is also community to be found in this designation. Those who dive connect with the physicality of being in the trash heap together but also through a shared ideological acceptance of eating trash.

For those who glean the majority of their caloric intake from the streets, the practice of trading and sharing helps provide a variety of foodstuffs. Many food items discarded by supermarkets are tossed out in quantity–like cases of Tropicana pineapple juice cartons, or a box full of bars of soap. The items people salvage in large quantities are distributed to other freegan friends, pooled for scheduled cooking parties, given away at Really Really Free Markets, or traded for other items. At the Really Really Free Market, held on the last Sunday of each month in the Washington Square Park South church, freegans and others gather to give away household items, clothing, and food. Everything is free. Besides material goods, people often donate their skills, like haircutting, shoe shining, or screen-printing, to those who want them.

There are others who exist in the same off-limits social space that is designated by close proximity to garbage: the homeless, bottle-collectors, and the truly destitute who depend on trash to survive. Through close contact, freegans tend to cultivate a respectful relationship with these people and give them priority when scrounging for food. Sanitation workers are also within this stigmatized category. On one trash tour, while divers were picking through bags in front of a natural foods store in Brooklyn, a sturdy sanitation worker with a little green shamrock tattooed on his neck appeared. He said, “Okay guys, here comes the party pooper. Just as long as you don’t tear open my bags, I’m fine with this. The other day I found a brand new DVD player–the people said, ‘it didn’t match our interior,’ can you believe that!?” and he let the freegans pick through the trash before he hauled it away.

All around the world there are subcultures that pick and glean from city remnants–like the cartoneros of Argentina and the kabari of India–existing on the fringe while providing a necessary civil service of recycling. In many ways dumpster diving is a new name for an old practice: gleaning, which has been documented throughout history. The repurposing of wasted objects is nothing new; however, today waste has grown to such volume and contains so much edible food that it provides both the catalyst for the freegan ethos and the means for freeganism to continue as a distinct activist subculture.

Practicing in the visible social spaces of New York City’s bustling streets, handing out bananas to passersby and building towers of rescued food, freegans demonstrate an alternative to and a critique of hyperconsumption.

Dumpster diving remains on the fringe, but the beliefs and values behind it–self-sufficiency, reinvention, and wasting less–are not so marginal. Like the preindustrial activities that have become so popular recently–pickling, canning, composting, animal husbandry–dumpster diving is an extension, albeit an extreme one, of a cultural movement that derives pleasure and pride from ecological consciousness and personal production. The same spirit of self-reliance inspires those who repurpose coffee cans into flowerpots, save bacon drippings from breakfast–and reclaim trashed baguettes outside of a bakery to make bread pudding.

Scarlett Lindeman is the recipe editor for The Diner Journal, an independently published food and arts quarterly. This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (12:1) published by University of California Press Journals.

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