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The Renaissance of Dumpster Diving

By Grainne Mar 31, 2009

By: Grainne Rhuad

About a year ago I read an article that caught my eye. It was on extreme environmentalism, what the new generation is willing to do to both save the planet and be cool, hip and cavalier at the same time. The article made the proclamation that modern Environmentalist have upped the ante in their eating habits. This new level of consciousness has been given a name: Freeganism. The free basically means diving into dumpsters for your food. The ‘ganism’ part is from veganism, as a lot of the proponents of this movement are vegan, though not all.

Now this movement is a little beyond hanging about back doors of restraints and supermarkets until the food comes out. Many Freeganist actually go into dumpsters. I caught video footage of a Ted Koppel interview from 20/20 in which city Freeganists rifled through trash bags to get food left on the curb.

There is apparently a big movement around this hobby. It seems to have taken on a social club atmosphere. Some completely friendly and open, some secretive and private. There are websites for Dumpster Diving teams. Freegan potlucks and outings are posted on message boards. People list all kinds of things from sites to scavenge to partners to go with on craigslist. A quick Google search using the words Freegan or Dumpster Diving will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about this eco-eating scene. Some of these sites are “super secret” and you have to have a password. You don’t want everyone getting your tips. There are sites that sell long hooks so you can scoop your score out of the garbage bin. It’s not a terrible idea at all. What do you think happens to all that milk, juice and bagels that go over the mark? The environmental protection agency estimates that we throw away 245 million tons of crap a year. That’s a lot and I am all for cutting down on that however we can.

What captured me about this though is that this is being presented as a new idea. Something just now that edgy environmentalism, have come up with and that thought just makes me laugh.

I flashback to 1976, my brothers and I are sitting around my kitchen table at dusk while my mom and a few other women are tying their hair back in bandannas. It is warm so they are all wearing tank tops and have the kind of muscles you get from hard work and lifting kids. They look to my 5 year old mind like warrior women, although I don’t know what that is yet, I think they are strong. I know they are going out to get food for our families. It is Wednesday, the day that their favorite stores rotate food. 3 hours later. They are back at the table the haul is huge. There are all kinds of canned and bottled things, detergents with scraped labels. Even fruit and vegetables still in the packing crates. A big dinner is cooked while the goods are divied up and we kids feel safe and happy to be eating these “miracle” foods we would never be able to afford. Things like popular breakfast cereals, fancy Jams, cookies. I flash forward to my own starting out days. I moved out with my new family of two at 16, into a studio apartment barely bigger than my current bathroom. I had no furniture, appliances, anything. Lucky for me I live in a College town. Timing was everything in a college town. At the end of each semester college kids sent to school by their parents would purge their apartments into the dumpsters. Things they had bought new barely two years ago, couches, televisions, stereos, clothes, bed sheets, vacuum cleaners. This was the remembrance and lesson given to me as I grew up. People throw away useful things. The thing is we were poor, very poor. But we never really felt it. Why? Because other people were comfortable and careless.

The point here is that what is occurring in this environmental time is people are not being creative. They are looking back. But I wonder as this becomes trendy will it go the way of all things trendy? Will the people who can truly benefit from it miss out because someone wants to go slumming and see what they can find? Will people stop throwing out their old treasures? In a way I hope they do, but I hope they give them away, not put a price on things that had no worth to them before.

**Author’s Note: Assuredly the question will arise, what about the health aspect. I chose not to include this for one because this is a topic on its own. Another reason however is there is already a plethora of information out there on how to handle recovered food and how to pick through it. Suffice to say most things in packages and in clean containers or bags will be okay to eat. Many people do eat loose vegetables, etc. Most of these people note they have never been sick, but it is of higher likelihood to get sick eating loose, unpackaged food.

Author does not endorse or recommend anyone practicing in Freeganism. Freeganism is and should be a personal choice made with much thought.

By Grainne

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9 thoughts on “The Renaissance of Dumpster Diving”
  1. The idea of rivaling desperate, needy people for their meager existence because it’s trendy is very disturbing. When did we remove humane from humanity?

  2. I am actually split on this. If people are doing it and cutting back in other areas AND putting those savings towards helping others, that sounds reasonable. In addition we really need to address this waste. It is ridiculous especially in bigger urban areas where food doesn’t get seperated and composted. Neither does it always reach the poor depending on city ordinances. For example where I live it is illegal to allow anyone to take this type of ‘expired’ food and products. Do restraunt owners still do it? Yes. But they can be fined.

    However in the 3 videos I watched on this subject, this didn’t appear to be happening. People still had their bourgeois ikea/pottery barn trappings and seemed to be on a lark which they probably would grow out of. It’s one thing to slum but yes to orgainize and provide an obsicle to the truly poor getting what they subsist on makes me worried about the strength or our morality as a people.

  3. Great article. It brought back all kinds of memories for me when I first got to college and realized that I was no longer living off my parents dime. My financial aid checks quickly disappeared on tuition, books and rent. I had no furniture too. I quickly discovered the wonderful world of dumpster diving. I cashed in. Nice stereo, lamps, my bed (yes I checked for evidence of bed bugs), chairs and all kinds of items for my kitchen. I stayed in college town year round. Unlike my more privalaged neighbors who were fiscally parasitic to their parents “back home”. I was truely greatful for their waste. It reminded me of trilogy documetaries directed by Godfrey Reggio back in the 80s. Howaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi and Powaqqatsi (I forget which order). These names were taken from the Hopi which mean something like a life of killing eachother. Big names were involved with the production with the likes of Francis Coppala, George Lucus and Steven Soderberg. Anyway these film are a poignant example of how waste and exploitaion are killing us and our planet as we know it. If you haven’t seen these I’d highly recommend you do. I am a strong advocate of conservation and being good stewarts of our tiny planet.
    Thanks for the artical.

  4. Hubbleboy, thanks for the documentary suggestions. I have not seen them but will go and look them up. It is indeed saddening to think that two whole generations have grown up with a throw away attitude. However I’m not convinced that making this type of conservation (dumpster diving) trendy is good for all. As Karla pointed out, it takes resources from the truly poor and gives it to those already upwardly mobile. I would much rather see these upwardly mobile/middle class people recycling their owns stuff through non-profits and places like Freecycle. Freecycle is a group that lists unwanted items up for grabs for….well….free. If anyone is interested and doesn’t know how to hook up with them their main website is: They have chapters in every major city and quite a lot of small towns. This keeps durable goods out of the landfills.
    As for food items, people can work within their community to encourage restraunts and stores to donate to local food banks and shelters. If it happens to be illegal to do so in your area, you have the power to vote. Lean on your government officals some. After all they are supposed to be working for us. To quote Megadeth “Tell me something…it’s still WE THE PEOPLE, RIGHT?”

  5. How about the ones who actually need the food? The homeless. What will happen to them if people who can get food else where start to take away the few crumbs that they get?

  6. Jen, this is the main concern of mine. If people were slumming for fun AND donating to the homeless that would be one thing, but keeping food for themselves so they can afford to buy two rather than one Prius is despicable. Really. Being ‘green’ has gotten so trendy it’s ridiculous. Also one gets the feeling that this is a lark that people will grow out of.

  7. Like you, I’ve taken left behind couches, chairs, tables…things like that. When I first moved out on my own, everything I had was second hand. Either from somewhere else, like a thrift shop or YES, a street corner. Or from some friend or co-worker who didn’t need it any more. I had nothing new. And I don’t see anything wrong with taking used things if you need them. But used food? That’s just ridiculous unless it’s the only option you have. I don’t think this is what was meant for us when we were asked to “go green”.

  8. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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