by Mr. Cheap

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, 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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