Freegans

by Mr. Cheap

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I’ve written in the past about people like Charles Long and Don Schrader who make me seem like I should be called Mr. Spendthrift, not Mr. Cheap.  An entire group who also makes me look like I’m throwing money around like a drunken sailor are the Freegans.  At our recent get together, neither Preet nor Mike had heard of Freegans, so I thought it might make an interesting post.

What Are Freegans?

People who have embraced Freeganism are scavengers, trying to minimize the social and environmental impact of our consumer society by extreme reuse of the waste of others.  They dumpster dive to secure the necessities of life (and for non-necessities discarded by others), and by doing so are able to release themselves from having to be a wage-slave.  They’re basically human raccoons.

Freegan is derived from “free” and “vegan”.  Some Freegans eat discarded meat (yum), but these are more accurately called “Meagans” (no, I’m not making this up.  If you’re wondering if this is a joke post, it’s not).

Apparently restaurants and grocery stores will often wrap up food that’s being discarded, so it’s possible to dig out food from the trash that’s still quite clean and hygienic (if you’ll allow a broad definition of both terms :-) ).  Restaurants and grocery stores have been sued in the past when food they donated made people sick. Rationally, they’ve responded to these lawsuits by no longer donating food, which is a shame for everyone involved (why do a few bad apples always need to spoil things?).  There was a recent bill signed into law in Florida that provides liability protection for restaurants to donate food.  Clinton signed The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act which supposedly does the same thing (I’m not sure why Florida had to create a similar law if there was Federal protection provided 13 years ago).

Things I Like About Freeganism

I admire people who are able to take their dissatisfaction with some part of modern living and change how they live.  I’m perpetually annoyed at people who complain endlessly, but do nothing to change things.  I’m even more annoyed at people who try to force change on everyone else (most activists).  People who say “I don’t like this part of the system, so I’m going to change how *I* live so that I’m not part of the problem and to show people that there’s another way” are very, very cool.

I find efficient resource consumption endlessly appealing.  I like the Walden-esque element of structuring their life such that they can be fairly independent from society at large.  Beyond the positive impact of not having products produced for them, they also save all the associated costs and impact of distribution.

Apparently Freegans don’t panhandle, which is a very good thing (in my opinion).

People make the criticism of Charles Long that his system of living wouldn’t work if everyone does it (which he acknowledges, but rightfully responds that most people won’t).  Similarly Freegans need people to generate the trash for them to live off of, so we can’t all live this way (and, I suspect, very few people would be willing to).  We can’t all live this way (and won’t), but it’s great for some people to do it if they’re willing.  Some people criticize Freegans for living indirectly off of a system they condemn, but I don’t have a problem with this.

I love that Freegans are able, by drastically reducing their cost of living, to be far more selective about what employment they take on.  Often they will volunteer or focus on projects of personal interest to them.

Freegans tend to find good garbage dumps that they’ll visit regularly.  Hopefully this means that they don’t make a mess when garbage picking.  I’m disgusted by littering in general and it always annoys me when I see homeless people dumping trash, sorting through it, then leaving the mess for someone else to clean up.

Things I Don’ t Like About Freeganism

I’m a pretty easy-going, open guy, but eating garbage is past where I draw the line.  I’m happy for other people to do it, but I’m not going to.

Part of the Freegan philosophy is moral support of theft (look about 2/3rds of the way down the page).  They advocate shoplifting as “better than forking over big bucks”, employee theft (they’re “stealing” your time, so steal things from the workplace), and scams such as returning goods they’ve dug out of the trash (for a refund).  I think they lose the moral high ground in a hurry when petty thievery becomes a part of the lifestyle.

While I like the libertarian elements and philosophy behind Freeganism, I think I’d have a very different perspective on life and society compared to most Freegans.  I don’t think our economic system is broken to the degree that it requires a complete boycott.  Ironically, it could be argued that the incredible strength of our modern economic system is what allows them to live a decent (debatable perhaps) lifestyle off of the system’s discarded trash.

More Info About Freeganism

A couple blog posts about Freegans are available at the Go Frugal blog, Tigers & Strawberries (a pretty blistering criticism of the movement) and at The Everyday Economist.  Two very comprehensive overviews are at “How Stuff Works” and a “lens” at Squidoo.  More mainstream news coverage is available at MSNBC (with video), Green Living Tips and Mother Nature Network (also with video).  If you don’t mind some really ugly English accents, there’s also a YouTube video.  An interesting critique of Freeganism is available here (it’s Tribe.ca, a message board about club culture in Toronto).

You can read what Freegans say about themselves at their main US website, their main Canadian website, and on the Canadian Activism Archives.

What do you think of Freeganism?  Would you ever consider a Freegan lifestyle yourself?  Have you ever met a Freegan (or know one as a friend / family)?

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ObliviousInvestor

The two things I’ve seen about freegans (both were TV specials…60-minutes type stuff, though it may have been a different show) indicated that the majority were actually people with regular full-time jobs.

If a person is a productive member of society, and at the same time he makes use of what the rest of us are shamefully wasting, then that person’s pretty cool imo.

2 Mike

Pretty interesting – I guess like any ideas there are people who take it further than others.

Where do you draw the line between recycling and dumpster-diving?

3 Canadian Capitalist

“Would you ever consider a Freegan lifestyle yourself?”

Hmmm… let me see: (1) eating garbage (eeeewwww) (2) stealing. The movement isn’t exactly selling itself. So, my answer is a definite no.

4 nobleea

“Rationally, theyve responded to these lawsuits by no longer donating food, which is a shame for everyone involved (why do a few bad apples always need to spoil things?).”

hahaha, very ‘punny’.

5 Mr. Cheap

Mike: I guess I’d draw the line as recycling is what you do BEFORE something goes in the trash, dumpster diving is when you reclaim garbage. I have no problem with dumpster diving per se (if I was walking along the street and saw something good in someone’s trash, I’d have no problem grabbing it), BUT I wouldn’t do this with food. I’d also be cautious about recycling food (e.g. I wouldn’t eat left overs off of someone’s plate if I worked at a restaurant, even if they’d never been in the trash). One of the saddest scenes in “Million Dollar Baby” is when she’s scavenging left-over food from customer’s plates at the restaurant she works at.

6 Quietrose

Nice post, Mr. C. Well-written and very informative.

In the complex where I live, people will throw out lots of seemingly good things, such as kids’ bikes, halogen lamps, mini TV’s, and storage pieces. I know that some of these items might be broken, hence the move to the trash, but some might still work or be in good condition. I think it is okay with things like this, to reclaim them, but I think “reclaiming” food is going too far, imo.

7 Victor

Even though I make 6 figures, I incorporate some aspects of freeganism into my lifestyle.

It started with walking the neighbourhood streets and seeing all the perfect furniture people were throwing out. I’m NOT speaking about 15 year old ratty couches. I’m a strong environmentalist and frugal to boot. I live in a wealthy city and I had an empty new house. This seemed too good to be true. Today, most of the furniture in my home has been reclaimed from the trash.

One night, after reading blog posts for weeks, I decided to try actual dumpster diving. To my absolute SHOCK, it was all true. Big box stores in my area (Best Buy, Future Shop, Toys-r-Us, Bed Bath & Beyond, etc.) were throwing out perfect items in their original boxes. Even after diving a dozen times, I was still shocked at the items I found. The items I did not need (most since I live a pretty spartan lifetyle) ended up being sold on Craigslist or at garage sales. I never tried to return an item. I made over $1000 from a few nights of diving.

I have dumpster dived for food only a handful of times, but it’s not easy. Most grocery stores use locked compactors, at least in my area. Contrary to what you may think, this does NOT, in my experience, involve digging through waste and filth. Maybe you are picturing something like out of that trashcan scene in GI Jane. No, nothing like that. Grocery stores throw out items in a very orderly fashion. It’s all ‘tagged and bagged’, and clean! Imagine a bag entirely filled with wrapped brocolli and nothing else.

For me, the motivation is environmental. I like the idea of keeping things out of the trash. I don’t need the stuff, I don’t need the money, and I can afford the food. Oh, it’s also LOTS of fun! It’s like a treasure hunt!

8 Al

It’s common practice in my neighbourhood to put out reusable items on the street a few days before garbage day. Nothing I’ve put out was still there by time the garbage truck came, and I’ve taken some things off the side of the road as well.

9 Four Pillars

Victor – I find it very hard to believe that big box stores throw out merchandise. Did you find any flat screen tvs?

10 Victor

Four Pillars – I found it hard to believe too. I still do.

Items stores throw out generally fall into three major categories: Returns, goods that are not selling and and items where the packaging has been damaged. When a customer returns an item there are a few possibilities.

1) The customer doesn’t want it, but it works fine and the packaging is perfect. The item goes back on the shelf.

2) The customer damaged the packaging. Generally, it goes in the bin or is returned to the manufacturer for exchange. However, the latter option involves a lot of paperwork and time. If it’s a busy time like just after a holiday, it goes in the bin.

3) The customer says the item doesn’t work. See (2). However, I have found that about 50% (yes, half) of the time, this is not true. For example (actual examples of things I’ve found, not made up): A printer where “the software CD doesn’t work” but it did. An IKEA desk that is “missing hardware” but only three screws were missing and cost me 4c at a hardware store.

Packaging can be damaged in the store, during shipping, during handling by employees, etc. Generally, these items go in the bin. If the store is too busy to handle returns, it all goes in the bin. I have heard that the stores can apparently declare these items as a loss for tax reasons, and they can declare the full value.

As an example of goods not selling, if a set of green and red candles is just not selling in early January, even at 50% off, they’ll get binned. “Why wouldn’t they mark them down to 90% off?” you might ask. Good question, and I asked the same thing. The reasons I’ve come up with are that if they did that, 1) customers who bought at full price would (rightly) feel scammed, 2) customers would go for the 90% off candles rather than other full price candles, thus reducing profit, and 3) at 90% off the store is losing money, so they do better declaring it at full value as a loss.

It really is truly appalling that it’s cheaper for the store to throw something out than to exchange it with the manufacturer or sell it at a huge discount, but it is what it is.

In the dozen or so times I’ve gone, I have unfortuntely never found a big screen TV. My guess is that with really big ticket items, it IS worth returning them to the manufacturer for exchange. But I did find a $500 colour laser printer that worked (software CD missing so I downloaded the drivers). Mostly the items I found were under $100, possibly for the reason I listed for the big screen TV.

Hope I answered your questions. I wish I got an email when this page updated. Feel free to email me if you wish.

11 Mike

Thanks Victor.

I installed the comment email plugin again so you can subscribe to the comments for each post. I had this installed before but I don’t know what happened to it.

12 Victor

Nice! :)

13 MoneyEnergy

Very interesting, I’m so out of the loop I guess that I’ve never heard this term. But why does it supposedly come from “vegan” – *are* they vegan, or a majority of them? I guess they just want to sound like that.

I agree with you, I think the scavenging is cool, since so much is wasted in our society, but I’d draw the line at actually eating from trash (it’d be ok to receive day-old donuts from the store itself) and stealing.

14 danielle

there’s definitely a scale of freeganism where people find themselves on different parts of. i believe very strongly in the concept of barter (trading services and goods without the need for cash). but dumpster diving definitely isn’t for me. and neither is scamming corporations, no matter how much i may despise the message that some of them send. i just don’t buy from them. there’s a Freecycle website for people who want a more “organized” version of the freegan lifestyle, mainly organized through Yahoo! groups http://www.freecycle.org/

15 LeeTheGirl

I wish I could tell when this was posted… I just want to say that I have NEVER come across a freegam who permitted theft. Trash is one thing, but to take something that hasn’t been thrown away is another.

Freeganism, as I know it, teaches to only take what is thrown away or freely given. Not to take someone’s things behind their backs. It’s supposed to be peaceful and unobtrusive.

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