[Header = Intro]It’s the first warmish night of the new year after a spell of frigid February cold, and I’m walking in a low-rise residential New York neighborhood where I don’t often find myself: Murray Hill. It’s a quiet sector of the city, where many recent college grads tend to congregate. Fairly clean. Lots of restaurants and gourmet delis. A little empty on this Wednesday night.

But a small crowd has gathered before D’Agostino’s grocery store on Third Avenue. The store workers lay out clear plastic bags of garbage, and a tall woman with long, silky brown hair raises her hand to silence the group. “A few ground rules,” she says. “Try to leave things cleaner than you found them. Don’t litter. And make sure you tie the bags back up when you’re done.”

Twenty or so people (most look to be under the age of 35, a Benetton ad of ethnic diversity) start to rummage through the bags. I hang back and watch. This is a “trash tour” — a collective grocerystore dumpster-diving endeavor coordinated by the local freegans, a group committed to minimizing environmental impact through boycotting the cash economy. Or, as this particular freegan collective states on its Web site (freegan.info), members employ “alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.”

Offended by the amount of waste generated in this country and inspired by the potential impact of reusing others’ castoffs, freegans partake in extra-capitalist activities like food foraging, squatting (living rent-free in abandoned buildings), swap meets, voluntary unemployment, ride sharing (yes, others call this carpooling), and even bike recycling.

It’s a simple idea based on rejecting the notion that we always need new things, and on overcoming planned obsolescence (when companies consciously design products that become obsolete, forcing us to buy new ones). Freegans reject even green consumerism — your hemp pants and recycled glass tiles still require you to pay — because freeganism is not just about politics. It’s about quality of life: If you buy less, you can work less.

No one knows for sure how many people take part in this movement. Freegan.info is simply the Web site of New York City–area freegans; there are other such sites in Russia, Norway, Australia, Germany, France, and all over the U.S., but the group has no institutional hierarchy or official directors. The term itself (it’s a combination of “free” and “vegan”) can be misleading; some within the vegan community take it to mean “a vegan who will eat meat if it’s free,” says Adam Weissman, 28, a spokesperson for the New York group.

Weissman, who maintains the group’s Web site and helps organize activities, lives at home with his father and grandparents in suburban New Jersey in order to dedicate himself full-time to the freegan cause. “What’s wrong with living at home?” he asks. It certainly is one way to avoid New York City’s skyrocketing rent, and it’s cleaner than squatting.

And freegans do take cleanliness into consideration, to a degree. Freegan.info posts food-safety tips for foragers: resist meats, sprouts, and melon, the site cautions, and “stay away from anything that someone else had started eating as one can get communicable diseases like hepatitis.”

In other ways, though, members are not picky about what they salvage. “Many freegans don’t see any significant moral difference between vegan shoes produced in a sweatshop and shoes handmade out of leather,” says Weissman, who wears scavenged khakis and a less-than-handsome acrylic sweater. It’s when we purchase goods, rather than scavenging them, that we become complicit in endorsing the materials that companies use, or the way they make their products, he explains. “Tyson Chicken doesn’t care if we buy [their poultry] to play volleyball with or to eat, as long as we’re giving them the money.”

So they’re not necessarily the healthiest folks, or the best dressed. And despite the fact that they don’t always have jobs, don’t pay rent and don’t shop, they’re not lazy, either. It’s hard work circumnavigating capitalism all day.

New Yorkers are quite accustomed to seeing trash receptacles molested on the streets. Many homeless and jobless people forage for bottles and cans to make a buck by bringing them to the recycling center, but the sight of this particular group causes some passersby to do a double take — the foragers are clean and young, and at least the newcomers are nicely dressed. Tonight, almost half of the crowd areobservers, among them three guys from Swiss public radio, a journalism major from Westchester, a photojournalism student from the International Center of Photography, and an anthropology student from NYU who’s conducting a study on urban scavenging. The freegans allow us to participate in order to spread their message, but they don’t want to be misconstrued as middle-class kids dumpster diving for kicks — they’re doing it to change, and save, the world.

A woman, sporting the traditional beige and gold garb and blond bleach job of certain East Side residents, stops and watches for a minute, cocking her head to the side. “Oh, they’re protesting,” she says. To a certain extent, they are: Freegans object to the infuriating incongruity between the amount of waste in this country and the number of hungry people. A 2004 University of Arizona study found that between 40 and 50 percent of all food ready for harvest gets tossed out, while more than 11 percent of American households have family members going hungry. But this particular group seems not to include the hungry or homeless. There’s a librarian, an architect, a filmmaker, and one young man who says, “I’m unemployed by choice. I live with my parents so I don’t have to pay rent.”

The group’s makeup illuminates a nagging quagmire: how to apply freegan philosophies both to the average American (who dreams of newer, bigger, better) and to the hungry and homeless. The freegans can pull off these trash tours in part because of the group’s clean and educated members; it’s unlikely that either the grocery store owners or the police would be so accepting if the folks who panhandle in the subway came above ground to rifle through their refuse.

“In New York City, the police are totally uninterested in what we’re doing,” says Weissman. “They’re too busy arresting bicyclists to worry about us.” (He’s referring to the crackdown on Critical Mass cyclists, reported in the October/November 2005 issue of Plenty.) They succeed because they’re clean and careful — if they leave a mess, the stores get ticketed by the sanitation department and will no longer accommodate their urban forages — and also because they’re together. “It adds a degree of legitimacy,” says Weissman. “If the community supports it, it’s a lot less weird.” When going through the trash alone, Weissman says, invariably people give him money, or sometimes buy him food. “They feel terribly insulted when I won’t take their hot dog.”

Tonight we’ve excavated cupcakes, tubs of pineapple slices, whole-grain bread and many bunches of bananas, not even brown enough for baking. Reclaiming food “shouldn’t be treated as if it’s a form of pathological social failure,” says Weissman. “This supposedly radical idea of living off other people’s waste has been around as long as there’s been waste.”

In some ways, it seems to work. As an elderly gentleman slips some bananas in his briefcase, I ask how he heard about the trash tour. “I just stopped because I saw the bananas,” he says. “I’m not with them.” The man represents a small victory for the freegans: When an average, well-employed New Yorker feels free to dumpsterdive, the stigma has indeed been removed.

Except it doesn’t quite work for me. A freegan regular named Janet Kalish lifts a bag and holds it out to me. “Banana?” she asks. But I’m paralyzed, confronted with my own culturally embedded notions of garbage: This is waste, and not to be ingested, despite the fact that thirty minutes ago those strawberries and oatmeal cookies were on the store shelf and thus perfectly good. Come on, I tell myself, it’s a banana. There can hardly be anything safer to snack on, with the fruit safely tucked beneath the skin.

But when it comes down to chewing on trash — even trash that’s only been trash for five minutes and isn’t soiled by coffee grinds and dirty napkins — I admit that I’m completely freaked out. I grew up wearing all hand-me-downs and shopping at the Salvation Army, long before vintage was chic. But even at our poorest, my family did not eat from garbage cans.

Cindy Rosin, an environmental art teacher and seven-year veteran of freegan dumpster-diving, recognizes my reaction. “I was taught that garbage was dirty — once it’s in the garbage, you don’t touch it,” she says. “But that’s not true. It’s not dirty. It’s not garbage, and it’s not bad. It’s the same as what’s in your fridge.” It’s true that I’ll drink milk for a day or two after its expiration date and I’ll cut out the little bruised spot on the apple without a second thought.

“Yeah, sure,” I say to Kalish. “Give me a banana.”

“Take three,” she says.

Two young women with Balenciaga bags and long cigarettes watch us. They tsk-tsk and say, “There’s just so much waste,” but decline the offer of a package of barely-wrinkled cherry tomatoes. I eat a banana — yup, tastes like a banana — and tuck the other two in my bag.

Once we’ve thoroughly exhausted the D’Agostino’s trash, we head two blocks south to Gristede’s. The pressure’s on now, as a garbage truck announces itself with a grumble. We run, trying to outpace it, but it turns out to be a recycling truck, not going for the perishable goods at all.

There is, of course, far more food than any of us can carry. “We encourage people to take more than they can use and look for others who can use the food,” says Weissman. “We want to promote a culture of voluntary sharing rather than the myth of scarcity, that there’s not enough to go around for everyone.”

The gentleman who’d stopped for the bananas picks up a clamshell package of oatmeal cookies, ponders them, tucks them under his arm, then changes his mind and places them back in the garbage bag. “On second thought,” he says, “they look like they’ll taste like straw.”

I have a hard time seeing how, if so few of us are willing to groceryshop in garbage bins, the freegans will ever be able to solve the societal and environmental problems they set out to address. Weissman, however, says people will come to see freeganism as a necessity. “It may not be a matter of choosing this lifestyle,” he says. “It may be we live this way now, or find ourselves living in chaos later.”

As I walk back to the subway with the two bananas stashed in my bag, I’m overwhelmed with hunger; I’d missed dinner. I could be snacking on rotisserie chicken or a Danish ring, organic salad mix or mushy avocadoes. Instead, I stop by the bodega and purchase a $1 bag of peanuts, glancing around furtively to make sure no freegans can see me.

In the subway, I place my two bananas on top of the trashcan, the way I do with newspapers, in case someone else wants them. I keep walking down the platform, and then I see a homeless man rooting around in another garbage bin. Subway trash, of course, is no grocery store trash — there could be body parts in there for all we know. The trash smells like, well, trash, and the man smells worse.

I retrace my steps, retrieve the bananas, and hand them to him. He’s so appreciative, smiling wide, thanking me. In a way, I’ve done what the freegans wanted, taken more than I could use and passed it on. “No problem,” I say to the man. “I wouldn’t want them to go to waste.”

NEXT: WEB RESOURCES >

[Header = Web resources]WEB RESOURCES

Want to try your hand at Dumpster-diving but can’t convince your friends to take part? Check out dumpsterworld.com and dumpsterdiving.meetup.com to connect with a vast community of trash-minded folk. If you’re not quite ready for a real-world garbage hunt, try freecycle.org, a virtual scavenging site where users list items they’re giving away or request stuff they need. And if you’re not sure to do with all that trash once you’ve got it, get tips for crafting projects at goddessofgarbage.com and make-stuff.com/recycling/.

NEXT: THE DIRT ON FOOD WASTE >

[Header = The dirt on food waste]THE DIRT ON FOOD WASTE

26 million tons of food waste are generated annually in the U.S. — $43 billion worth of uneaten fare.

Less than 3 percent of that waste is reclaimed for uses like composting and animal feeding.

The average household discards about 470 pounds of food each year, or 14 percent of all edibles brought home.

An average family of four tosses out $590 per year just in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grain products.

15 percent of that waste includes unopened products that never even passed their expiration date.

Reducing food waste by half could reduce landfill use, soil depletion, and agricultural chemical use by 25 percent.

Statistics from Food Policy Institute and Timothy W. Jones, University of Arizona.

NEXT: BUYER'S REHAB >

[Header = Buyer's rehab]BUYER'S REHAB

What Happens when 1,000 People Stop Shopping?

On New Year’s Day, 2006, San Francisco resident John Perry quit shopping, cold turkey. The 42-year-old marketing and communications associate is one of roughly a thousand people around the world who kicked the habit that day as part of a non-consumer group called The Compact (sfcompact.blogspot.com). The San Francisco–based network has pledged to buy nothing for a year, except for staples like food, healthrelated products, and (reassuringly) underwear. Purchases of secondhand goods are also allowed, since they don’t add any additional clutter to the world. More orthodox Compacters refuse to dine in restaurants, believing them to be wasteful; some folks even seek out alternatives to toilet paper.

The group’s founders (who include Perry, his partner, and a few friends) say their primary motivation was a desire to reduce waste. For Perry, it began when he took a good look at all the unneccessary objects in his home. Other members see the challenge as a way to save money, to protest big-box retail, and even to cure professed shopping addictions.

But Compacters have found it’s not always easy being green. The group has been flamed by conservative and liberal commentators alike for, respectively, undermining the American economy and not being committed enough to their cause. Perry unapologetically drives his car, as does fellow founder Kate Boyd (who runs hers on biodiesel), both pointing out that their intention in becoming Compacters was simply to limit new purchases for a year, not to completely alter their way of living. One blogger speculated in a recent post that“the members of The Compact are safely uppermiddle-class, already own everything that they could possibly want or need, and are doing this out of a need to give meaning to their otherwise bland existence.”

The group’s founders, though — most of whom are middle-class and run the gamut in terms of ethnic background — insist The Compact was not born of ideological superiority, elite degrees, or a desire to start an international movement. “We certainly aren’t trying to create a movement,” says Perry. “We never said we were perfect, we just said, ‘we’ll do our thing.’”

— Tiffany Martini

NEXT: TALKING TRASH >

[Header = Talking trash]TALKING TRASH

Urban scavengers go high tech

Last November, James Nachlin, a 34-year-old New York City resident with a computer science degree and an uncanny resemblance to Ben Stiller, quit a lucrative cyberjob and started spending more time with trash — or garbage, as he prefers to call it. To those who knew him, this wasn’t a shock. Nachlin (who has a scar on his right thigh from a leaky battery he pocketed at age four) has been a dumpster-diver for most of his life.

Until recently, finding treasures in the trash was a personal pleasure. Then, after he purchased a camera phone a year ago, Nachlin had an epiphany while riding his recycled bike: garbage mapping. In a few months, garbagescout.com was up and running, rapidly disseminating the whereabouts of choice urban refuse.

It works like this: You’re on your way home, and you see something interesting on the curb. After confirming that it’s free for the taking, you snap a picture and e-mail it, along with a description and the address, to garbagescout.com. Within minutes, your find appears on the site’s treasure map, which uses flaming trashcan icons to mark the latest discoveries — and garbage hounds are racing for the La-Z-Boy with coffee stains on Crescent and Third.

The seven-month-old site now receives more than 10,000 hits per day, leading an innovative, urban recycling phenomenon. Nachlin recently added maps for the San Francisco Bay Area and Philadelphia, and he hopes to continue expanding into other U.S. cities where the conditions are right for scouting. “Places where people drive everywhere don’t work as well,” he explains. “If you’re driving, you don’t have time to look for stuff.”

Nachlin believes his site addresses an annoying inefficiency in the supply chain: “In one part of the city someone is throwing something out at the exact moment someone is buying the same thing somewhere else.” He’s hoping both to help would-be dumpster-divers in their scouting efforts and to make users consider what’s in other people’s trashcans — as well as their own.


— Charles Bethea

Story by Lisa Selin Davis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.