Freeganism: Dumpster Diving to Buck the Spending Trend

Trash tours growing in NYC.

August 5, 2011, 4:13 PM

August 8, 2011 -- Amid S&P downgrades and widespread panic about financial markets, an anti-consumerism movement quietly marches on: Freeganism.

Freeganism, which popped up in the early 90s, rejects the idea of overspending as a "national addiction," according to New York City freeganist, Madline Nelson. The movement goes beyond veganism's rejection of animal products and bucks consumerism for sustainability. It has spread worldwide, with Freeganist websites in French, Norwegian and Portuguese.

Freeganists practice dumpster diving for food, composting and recycling. They also walk or bike instead of driving, "squat" in abandoned buildings, eat local and "work less," according to the website.

"These options are available to most people on a mortgage treadmill," said Nelson. "They don't need to wait to go to a nursing home before they downsize."

In the U.S., trash tours are organized to introduce more people to the Freeganism concept of dumpster diving. There are 16 active Dumpster Diving groups in the U.S. on, including groups in Washington D.C., Boston and L.A. They operate differently based on the participants and geography of the city, Nelson said. In L.A., Freeganists pile up in carpools to pick through store trash.

According to Nelson, the NYC trash tours attract participants across age, class and professional divide and have grown noticeably since the recession in 2008. She said that the tours currently attract, on average 40 people, as opposed to the 10 or so who used to attend pre-2008.

"I think there are more people coming because this might be a way to make ends meet," said Nelson."We have shown literally thousands of discrete individuals how to go dumpster diving and trash picking in this city."

Dumpster Diving For Food

Shortly before she opted out of her job as director of Internet communications for Barnes and Noble in 2005, Nelson began dumpster diving for free food as part of her non-consumerist lifestyle.

"The bottom of the food pyramid for me is still dumpster diving, in terms of volume," Nelson said. "More food comes from that than other means."

According to Nelson, Freeganists typically find food in dumpsters outside of food stores such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Duane Reade an hour after these stores close. Pre-packed meals, yogurt and fruits -- bananas are thrown out in "shocking quantities" -- are all tested by the dumpster divers for their temperature. In the summer months, if these foods are not cold, they are left behind.

But according to the New York State Health Department, these temperature-testing precautions are not enough.

"There are too many uncertainties involved about what the food in the dumpsters have been exposed to," said spokesman Peter Constantakes. "We have concerns about the practice mainly because anything that goes into trash has exposure to any sort of food pathogens, including rat droppings, pesticides, or household cleaners that can be a potential health risk."

Nelson, who employs the temperature-testing techniques, said: "People need to take the same reasonable health precautions with food outside of a store as they do inside of a store. It took me two years of doing this before I considered myself sophisticated enough with it to discern which foods were cold enough or hot enough to take."

Promoting Sustainability

Currently, Nelson is unemployed. She carefully lives off her savings and helps to organize bi-monthly trash tours and monthly Freeganism feasts in New York City, part of an effort to eliminate food waste in the U.S. -- an estimated 34 million tons annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Around 20 people attended the monthly feasts in NYC, said Nelson. The most recent one included a "dumpstered" spread: grilled veggies, fruit salad, coleslaw and "many of the kind of things you can find at a summer picnic."

"Since at least 2001, I remember George Bush saying, 'if you love America go out and buy because it will support the American economy,'" Nelson said. "But if you love the economy, if you love the world, for God sake don't buy because it's 100 percent unsustainable."

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