“Who’d throw this out?” says Fred Armisen, pulling a laughably tiny sweater over his head. He and co-star Carrie Brownstein are rifling through a grocery store dumpster in one of Portlandia’s characteristically funny/obnoxious skits. The fact that all of their friends cancel on the bin-forraged dinner party they’re preparing is the punchline, but this betrays the reason that the act of dumpster diving has graduated to the satire-target level of cultural consciousness: These days, a not-insignificant portion of the population is approaching society’s ever-expanding reservoirs of refuse as a resource, taking the middleman out of the second-hand shopping experience and feeding on vast quantities of discarded food. “Freegan” (free-stuff vegan) is a term that some have adopted to situate the practice—once stigmatized as a subhuman act of the destitute—within a political/philosophical framework of environmentalism and anticapitalism. True to the nonhierarchical anarchist ideas from which the term is derived, freegans come in many stripes, from the antiestablishmentarian to the low-impact liver, the DIY explorer to the average American struggling to support their livelihood in a time of vast economic inequality.
According to freegan.info, an online hub, directory and resource site for “sustainable living beyond capitalism,” between a third and half of the food produced in the US goes to waste. More than an incidental economic externality of an industry that deals in disposable goods, obsolescence is prescribed in the creation of all material goods in order to turn a profit through increased sales. So long as the purchase of new stuff is the motor on which our economy runs, that machine is going to churn out perfectly good “waste” at exponential rates. In its most radical form, “freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of production ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts.” Freeganism subverts the fundamental idea of scarcity upon which resource-hungry capital relies, drawing attention to the abundance—that mythical “free lunch”—that could very well serve everyone in need.
More than a solitary activity for foul-smelling treasure hunters, freeganism can be a deeply communitarian activity. Activist soup kitchen Food Not Bombs has long relied on dumpster-harvested food to provide free meals, while freecycle.org has emmerged as an online gifting platform (a sort of freeBay) for the spoils. While the term was born out of the anti-corporate globalization movement of the ’90s, it’s impossible to separate freeganism from free economy experiments of the late ’60s (the Diggers, etc.) and agricultural gleaning, as portrayed in Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I.
I caught up with one Troy-based freegan to learn the tricks of the trade. As dumpster diving poses some legal and social risk—and because the culture is not without its flair—she chose to use the assumed name Joan E. Cache. The 30-something Cache’s first foray into dumpster diving occurred behind a Dunkin’ Donuts when she was still in high school. DD is a spot that most dumpster divers know, whether or not they choose to feed on the pastries, due to the mandatory dumping of day-old baked goods. Other similar fast-food chains offer the same promise and Cache said the best are the ones dealing in pre-packaged salads and sandwiches. Not only does the excessive packaging keep the food sanitary but it expedites the process of rifling through a dumpster at night, attempting to separate kitchen from bathroom waste under a headlamp (the dumpster diver’s best friend). “You’ve got to feel the bags,” she says. “Are those bagels or bathroom trash?”
Cache honed her skills in New York City for years, where the abundance of small food shops and roadside trash removal made the process easy. It also led to more run-ins with bystanders, who would at first seem confused or disgusted before realizing how much good stuff there was, and shop owners, who could react with territorial anger until realizing that it mattered little whether she or garbage men took the stuff away. Cache fondly recalls pillaging the dumpster behind a high-end furniture store, harvesting discarded leather samples that she and friends turned into bracelets they later sold at the Bedford Avenue subway stop in Williamsburg. They were able to make enough money to buy a proper, non-dumpster dinner.
She admits the pickings are slimmer in Troy, as most of the major food stores are corporate chains that dispose of their waste in inaccessible compactors. Still, she’ll routinely come away with five-pound bags of rice, cast away for ripped packaging, cartons of eggs, discarded for one or two broken ones and plenty of produce, deemed unfit for sale due to minor cosmetic damage. There are, of course, health concerns, she says. On principle, one should avoid meat and limit dumpster diving in the summer, when heat ups the spread of bacteria.
Like most freegans, Cache doesn’t rely exclusively on what she forages, but finds it’s an easy way to reduce food costs and supplement a lifestyle that includes community gardening and sustainable urban homesteading. “It’s essentially wild foraging, just urban foraging,” she says, admitting that there’s a “strong allure of getting something outside the system, skimming off the waste and reducing our environmental footprint.” But the thing that sends her back to the dumpster, just like Brownstein’s character, despondent over her failed dinner party, is the thing that any shopping addict understands, especially those prone to garage sales and flea markets, justified by a totally clean conscience. “It’s the thrill of the possible find.”