Life from a Freegan Perspective A Veteran "Dumpster Diver" from Brooklyn Explains What It's All About

It’s eight o’clock on a sticky hot August night. The members of the New York freegan movement have gathered by a subway entrance in west Brooklyn, New York. It’s time for the trash tour, a monthly event where members forage local dumpsters for discarded, but still edible, food. These are not your typical trash divers, at least not judging by their looks. Most of them are young and clean-cut. Several are students. But there’s a lot more to trash than eating.

freegan, credit: computer-saskboy, flickrCC

“Some people ask why the food’s not going to charitable organizations,” says 54-year-old Brooklyn resident Madeline Nelson, a seven-year veteran of the freegan lifestyle.” But this is a political act as much as anything else. We eat the food, but the point is to make people stop and think.” In keeping with freeganism’s anarchist-tinged philosophy, she prefers the title “organizer” to director.

One of the movement’s core values is cutting back on work or “getting off the treadmill,” as Nelson puts it. “For me, it started as a consumer boycott,” she says. “I stopped buying new clothes, stopped buying a lot of consumer goods. The whole idea of quitting [my job] came out of that. The one thing I did after quitting work was to leave Manhattan. It was too expensive.”

According to Worldwatch Institute, Americans throw away food equaling the weight of 74 Golden Gate Bridges every year, a lot of it still edible. And last summer, more than 500 million eggs were recalled due to a salmonella outbreak. Indeed, the numbers quickly become almost too big to grasp. But Nelson thinks the hard-to-digest figures might have a positive effect. “Even Walmart is carrying organic now,” she says. “I think we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift. More and more of us are starting to question the system from within.”

As soon as they proved profitable enough to carry, organic and eco-branded products found their way onto grocery store shelves. But greenwashing—the practice of taking a regular product and simply branding it “eco” or “green” in order to increase sales—was quick to follow. Nelson points to our consumption patterns. “I don’t think people are bad,” she says. “But once you get this big, powerful machinery going, we become detached. If we’re worried about food quality, [corporations] are gonna try and capitalize on that, too.”

This sums up what could be considered another of the few core values of the otherwise fragmented freegan movement: ending capitalism as we know it—particularly its wastefulness. “We want to see the end of capitalism, but we don’t necessarily want to be involved in the electoral process,” Nelson explains. “And while we still have capitalism, we want to help people get out of it to some degree. If we could dissolve the huge corporations, we’d be at least 50% better off.”

Many would agree that we need to make fundamental changes to our lifestyle in order to save the environment—though perhaps not to the extremes that freegans imagine. But the question remains: How do you ask people to make those changes without causing them to feel that they’re lowering their quality of life?

“It’s about disconnecting the feeling of satisfaction from the spending of money,” Nelson says. “People have been fooled into thinking they can buy their way to happiness. What we do is to show people they can have fun and be happy wihout necessarily spending money. Happiness is much cheaper than they think.”

CONTACTS: Freegan.info; Worldwatch Institute.