Dumpster Diving And The Art of Freeganism
On a late afternoon, Eric Einem went dumpster diving with his daughter Celina. The gate was closed. They snuck through a hole on the fence. With her little body, she skillfully went through the small hole in the bush. She seemed to know every step it took to be in the garbage yard. Einem was a little distracted. He kept looking away as if something or someone was coming.
A week ago, he went dumpster diving with several friends, and found fresh flowers, bananas and eggplants, good eggs and bread. The food often filled up his kitchen every time after a dive.
Einem, 46, is a freegan, a group of people who uphold the ideology of freeganism.
Freeganism – a word mixing of “free” and “vegan,” is an anti-consumerism lifestyle. Freegans usually go dumpster diving to collect thrown out food and items. They comb through trash of grocery stores and restaurants for usable products. They will reuse some and donate some. In their words, they are “rescuing resources.”
Einem has been dumpster diving for almost five years. The first time he heard about freeganism and dumpster diving was from friends who were involved.
He doesn’t understand why there is “vegan” in the word “freeganism,” which means people against the use of animal products. To him, freeganism is a natural and simple lifestyle. It’s also about sharing and giving away things for free. “It’s like a free economy,” he said.
He values friends, relationship to the community, and the sense of belonging to the community. Meanwhile, he thinks too many people are competing purely for money.
Dumpster diving once or twice a week, Einem often goes with at least one other person each time, and it’s often at midnight when the store is closed and the dumpsters are filled. In some places they could go in late afternoon. Late-night activity is a common challenge for freegans because a lot of them have day-time jobs.
Einem is working in an environmental organization called Transition. He has two daughters, 18 and 11. His older daughter sometimes makes fun of his ideology, but he merely considers it teenage rebellion. His younger daughter, Celina, is very interested in what "daddy" is doing. Einem never mentioned a word about their mother.
Celina jumped to her feet when Einem put some unopened soap in the box. Apparently, she enjoyed dumpster diving, even if she couldn’t really dive, because she couldn’t reach the dumpster. The little girl joyfully played with the items that had just been picked up. Perhaps for her, it had become a playground.
Paul Livingstone, a sitar musician and Einem’s roommate, has dumpster dived for a year-and-a-half under Einem’s influence. He has been to India five times and has a global perspective on freeganism. This lifestyle helps him understand how wasteful the western culture is. “I have seen real deprivation, real people who live next to dumpsters, and their resources are from there. For us, it’s a choice. In India, there is no choice,” said Livingstone.
What freegans are looking for is food in good condition, unopened and that hasn’t expired. After every dive, they find enough food to fill a van.
Food is not the only thing they find. Basically, anything that is usable will go to freegans’ boxes, such as soap, flowers, sauces, etc. “It’s important for people to see that there are so many resources that are being used unwisely,” said Livingstone.
Right after finding soap, Einem took out a box of nice green vegetables.
Holiday season is a prime time for food consumption and food waste. The National Turkey Federation estimated that Americans ate nearly 46 million turkeys this Thanksgiving. A study by the Green Restaurant Association shows, a single restaurant in the U.S. can produce about 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food waste each year. Roger Clemens, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, points out that there is about 30 percent wastage of food in the United States.
Clemens also questions the safety of food from dumpsters. “There is little consideration for the food safety found in dumpsters. Food in dumpsters is contaminated with a lot of other products and a lot of things you don’t even want to talk about,” he said.
But according to Einem, he has never had food poisoning. In a delighted tone, he said the only time he became sick was because he ate too many donuts.
Jason Guthrie, a friend of Livingstone’s, is thinking about joining them to dumpster dive. The only concern for him is getting up at midnight, not safety or hygiene. He thinks many people are germaphobic, but having some germs are actually good for health, he said.
“Dive,” a freegan documentary filmed by Jeremy Seifert, shows dumpster diving in the grocery chain Trader Joe’s. It put Trader Joe’s in the center of dispute, even if other grocery stores have the same problem of waste. Trader Joe’s says it donates the majority of its unsellable items to different non-profit and charitable organizations everyday, such as local food banks.
Alison Mochizuki, public relation director for Trader Joe’s, said: “We would not recommend removing Trader Joe’s items from the dumpsters for the simple reason that these items have been evaluated by our crew as questionable to donate due to safety concerns.”
Clemens explained that there might also be concerns about legality. “In addition to the store becoming legally liable, the manufacturers of the food are legally liable. So if company Y sold it to store X, the entire food chain, the entire supply chain becomes legally liable for the safety of that food,” said Clemens.
Catherine Morris at Los Angeles Catholic Worker—a nonprofit organization that helps feeding the hungry and housing the homeless -- said they accept food donation from freegans, as long as the package is intact and the food is edible. But now, they could not receive any more donations, because the amount of donated food has exceeded what they could handle.
Einem usually shares the things he finds in dumpsters with friends. After dumpster diving, he and friends will cook together, and donate the food that they cannot consume to homeless people and others in need. Livingstone recalled that he used to find 50 pounds of meat in a dumpster, but as a vegetarian, he couldn’t eat it. Instead, he gave it to someone who would enjoy the meat.
“Several days a week, Eric is taking a huge amount of perfectly good food to groups in East LA to feed the homeless. I think that comes out of a heart of generosity,” said Livingstone.
Einem seldom receives negative reaction about freeganism from people around him. Mostly, they are curious. He is currently organizing a dumpster diving online meetup group, which has roughly 500 members. Usually a dozen or so show up at their events; sometimes there are more in a dumpster tour. A lot of them have never dumpster dived before, and most rarely return to another event. Einem thinks perhaps they just want to see what it’s about.
Five minutes later, Einem and Celina were caught by a security guard. The guard yelled at them furiously and threatened to call the police. When he was on the phone, another security guard, who didn’t speak much English, gave them a warning and let them leave. Celina didn’t appear terrified. Einem was actually quite calm.
“It’s possible to get arrested if you are trespassing when you are dumpster diving. But, I mean, not that it wasn’t worth it, probably from that one store we have rescued thousands of dollars worth of food,” he said.
He did get arrested before for trespassing and was released after being detained for one hour. But charges were never filed against him. The only penalty was that his car was impounded for illegal parking. That bad experience didn’t intimidate Einem at all. Clemens says the trespassing law is rarely enforced against dumpster divers.
Risky as it may be, dumpster diving indeed saves a lot of money. Einem and Livingstone only spend $20-$30 dollars a month on food now. For them, it’s like “an adventure you never know what you are going to find.” “Now I have less fear about the future,” said Livingstone.
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