Dumpster Divers Cry: Don't Buy!
Freebie movement challenges the scramble for profit
Every month, a group of friends gathers for a home-cooked potluck dinner. The guests talk, laugh and eat. But this dinner is a little different from most soirees: all of the food was found in New York City Dumpsters.
Welcome to the world of freeganism. Freegans (from “free” and “vegan”) buy as little as they can, in order to boycott today’s economic system. The first-world economy, according to freegans, is profit-driven to the point of eclipsing basic ethics. To combat this, freegans employ “alternative strategies” for living, centered on consuming as little possible. That leads them to activities like Dumpster diving, recycling and apartment squatting.
Freegans are difficult to classify: “freegan” is just a word, used to contain a somewhat fluid movement. But that movement is reaching a new level of activism and publicity. According to their de facto leader, Adam Weissman, an activist living in Hackensack, N.J., the idea has roots in both the American hobo culture of the 1950s and the hippie era of the 1960s and 70s. But it’s also forging a new path.
“You’ll find a broad spectrum of people, who value the idea of building cooperative communities and sharing resources as an alternative to being dependent on multinational killer corporations,” said Weissman, 27, who two years ago started the freegan database and network, www.freegan.info, from his home.
The scene at a recent potluck dinner suggested that freegans are also diverse in age. About 30 people, from college students to grandparents, gathered around a handpainted wooden table to share recipes, laughs, and tips for alternative modes of consumption. A guest who had found a bag outside a textile factory passed around scraps of fabric.
The monthly “freegan feast,” at a volunteer’s home, was open to the media, in order to promote the freegan lifestyle. The group runs introduction dives, lectures, and “trailblazes,” in which freegans explore the garbage of new neighborhoods. At its trash tours, freegans root around garbage bags and call out their finds like auctioneers.
Not everyone agrees with the freegan approach to social change. The freegans don’t offer alternatives to a profit-driven society, JC Dwyer of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said. “Not everyone could eat garbage, because someone has to produce that garbage,” Dwyer said. He thinks combating hunger requires political pressure, to expand social programs and public assistance.
But Weissman says freeganism wasn’t meant to solve world hunger.
“All freeganism does is build alternatives that are more community-based and ecologically responsible,” he said.
The freegan movement is just one of a line of cooperative and other radical movements that challenge the prevailing economic system, says John Holst, author of “Social Movements, Civil Society, and Radical Adult Education.” Holst views Dumpster diving as responsible though eccentric: “an alternative to dominant forms of food production and disposal that are widely seen as unsustainable and highly wasteful.”
Weissman went vegetarian at age nine, vegan at 12, and as a teenager ate only organic foods. Today, he lives with his father and grandparents. He has not bought food in close to 11 years, though he says his family will not touch most of the food he brings in from Dumpsters.
The group’s website coordinator, Janet Kalish, a 43-year-old public-school Spanish teacher on sabbatical, spreads the word through announcements to activist groups and listings on events calendars.
She’s recently noticed an uptick in interest.
This spring she recruited Arnaldo Roman, 25, who lives in the Bronx and works at Party Bike, a bike rental business in Times Square.
“I saw the freegans on the news, and at first, I didn’t understand: why would these people take things from the garbage?” he said. “But I started getting into the concept of self-sufficiency. I started going on some dives and really getting into it. There’s a real sense of community here.”