Waste not, want not

Freegans source edible food from what society perceives to be waste. Lily Eastwood uncovers freeganism as a form of political protest and philosophy

“Yeah, her sister lives in a yurt and eats out of bins,” said a friend. She shrugged, perhaps she was a little cynical, but mostly she seemed dismissive. And that was my first insight into freeganism. Having been making polite small talk about our families and their habits it was a bit of a conversation killer.

A yurt, by the way, is a portable shelter with a wooden frame and a felt covering traditionally used by Central Asian nomads, but sometimes used in the grounds of a country estate as a political protest against waste and inefficiency – and other times just to save a bit of cash. Alice* is a 23 year-old law student from Oxford. Having spent some time in a yurt, she is now renting in Norwich where she studies and, mostly, still eats out of bins: “I’d say about 90% of the time, I very rarely buy food. But it’s not just about saving money, even if I had loads of money I’d still do it because it’s a protest against all the waste.”

Freeganism is difficult to trace and difficult to define. ‘Skipping’, also known as ‘dumpster-diving’ and ‘bin-raiding’, is the process of ‘liberating’ food from bins. The vast majority of food thrown out by supermarkets and food outlets is still in its packaging and not yet past it’s use-by date. This element is however just a small part of a multi-faceted eco-consumerist movement.

In 1999 Warren Oakes, Against Me! drummer, wrote the closest existing thing to a freegan manifesto: The pamphlet “Why freegan”. But freeganism existed before that. The ideology is said to have its roots in vegan anti-consumerist groups. But nowadays not all freegans are vegan. The website freegan.info, probably the most comprehensive website of the movement’s minimal Internet presence, cites waste reclamation, waste minimisation, eco-friendly transportation, going green (or foraging) and voluntary joblessness as central, but not universally held, freegan ideals.

What is clear is that a freegan is making a political statement about the inherent waste in society; a scavenger is just looking for ‘free stuff’. Freegans make this statement with the support of some persuasive and shocking statistics. These statistics highlight waste; 1,600 million apples, 1,030 million tomatoes, 2,570 million bread slices and 484 million unopened yoghurt tubs are discarded annually by households in the UK; they highlight rising food prices; India has banned the export of all forms of rice other than luxury basmati, pushing up global rice prices; and they highlight environmental impact; Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is losing 30,000 species a year. In the face of this the freegan ideology has a good deal of political clout. At a time when environmentalism and economic breakdown is hot on the lips of the international community, freeganism is a radical attempt to step out of such a monumental rate of consumption and destruction.

Simon, 25, has been involved in Freeganism for 5 years now: “During college I started thinking a little bit more about what I wanted to do with my life. I started seeing a lot of the problems in the world, but I didn’t know what the solutions were.” After college Simon began travelling and met some freegans. Their philosophy and lifestyle was exactly the kind of answer he’d been looking for.
Unlike Alice, Simon does not rent. He has spent the last five years moving around in a freegan community. “I have a lot of friends in a lot of different places and I move around, it’s kind of fluid. Currently I’m travelling in a converted van, running off waste veggie oil. Other than that I have squatted, I’ve lived in apartments; people have opened their houses up to me. I’ve even lived for two months in the woods.”

Many freegans consider residency to be a right, not a privilege. Free living is a protest against homelessness, exploitation and inequality. Squatters make a stand against councils and landlords who would rather keep properties boarded up if they cannot turn a sufficient profit on them.
Simon also follows the principle of voluntary joblessness, one of the rarer freegan ideals. “I guess one thing that makes me quite different from a lot of people is that I don’t work for money. So for the past five years I haven’t had a pay cheque or a salary. It’s just trying to get motivation for doing things out of love for others and not in expectancy of getting things in return.”

For Simon it isn’t enough to revert to bartering and non-monetary forms of trade: “I try to really ensure that the motivation is just there to help people, because if you’re doing it in the expectancy of even getting food in return it just becomes almost like the current economic system, where you just do something in return for getting something.” He has not worked for food, money or shelter in five years, though his community does sometimes accept donations so he has used money on occasion:“It’s nice not to (use money), but it depends on what is the best use of resources. For example you don’t want to spend lots on food that you can liberate from the bins, but you also don’t want to spend half a day doing that or spend a lot of fuel driving around places when you could just spend a few pounds and get some food. It depends on what’s the wisest use of resources.”

Simon and Alice seem to represent the divide between freeganism as a political protest and freeganism as a philosophy in it’s own right. Alice talks freely about the flaws and limits of freeganism, for her it is a corrective procedure of redistribution and a political protest. Simon, on the other hand, is totally convinced by the end point of freegan philosophy and is unfazed by the accusation of reliance on the system they mistrust: “We make use of waste but that doesn’t mean we’re dependent on the waste to live. Think about revolution for example. When revolutions take place within countries, they still use the same roads, they still walk the same pavements and they still make use of whatever that system they’re revolting against has made. In the end I think the freegan hope is that we get rid of it (waste) altogether, and change society’s motivation.”

To many all this talk of love and revolution smacks of unproductive hippy-talk. Your average middle-class liberal, though environmentally aware and desperately open-minded, becomes distinctly uncomfortable in the face of love-wielding radicals. Simon, however, talks with genuine warmth and his belief and experience in the capability of humankind to cohabit so peacefully is uplifting. When I questioned the realism of his approach as a long-term lifestyle he was full of nothing but success stories: “I do know families involved in the freegan movement. Does it work? Yeah I think it does. It works for everybody, it’s just about doing things out of love and sharing, I think you can do that just as easily as a family unit. Most freegan families I’ve met do home school their kids, but I know freegan families whose kids go to normal school too.”

Simon’s freegan lifestyle involves real dedication to his community and, he argues, it provides equality of opportunity giving people the time and support they need to develop their own skills: “A good thing about the freegan lifestyle is that, because you’re not spending your day making money you’ve got a lot of time to learn. So there’s nothing stopping people learning these skills and because we share and we live together it’s easier to learn. There’s more time when you’re not pressed to meet deadlines.”

On the whole, freegans like Simon are hard to count. Their limited societal presence, non-rent or taxpaying, home schooled and self-sufficient, means they are somewhat elusive, so it’s difficult to quantify the success of such communities. Simon’s non-trade principle, for example, seems very difficult to commit to on a large scale in light of humans’ very natural tendencies towards property and exchange.

“No trade and no money are different things,” says Alice, “You can still have trade without money. I guess ideally it would be great if there was no money but I think it’s ok to trade stuff.” Alice does see space for non-monetary systems in current society though. “On a local level, some cities have schemes where they swap vegetables for other things. So you can earn local currency by doing a job for someone.”

Even with ambitions of being a lawyer Alice sees no problem with continuing with waste reclamation; she too even knows families who have continued skipping and other freegan pursuits. She is, however, slightly hesitant about living in a freegan community: “I would possibly consider it, I don’t know if it would be compatible with being a lawyer though. I’m not sure really. The work that I want to do is more about because I want to help people. I’d love it if I could do it for free because I want to do legal aid and work that there’s hardly any funding for. If I was able to do that for free by living an entirely freegan lifestyle I guess that would be ideal. I mean doing work for free in the hope that other people will do the same is nice but…slightly not realistic. The real problem (with freeganism) is it’s not an ideal solution because not everyone can live in this way. It’s based on a wasteful society and that’s not an ideal.”

Alice continues to use freeganism to protest against waste, and her career ambitions set her apart from self-contained freegan communities. A current project she is working on is organised redistribution with her local Sainsbury’s: “I’ve been trying to set something up because Sainsbury’s have agreed to give food waste to homeless people. The difficulty has been finding a venue (for distribution) but I think we’re going to manage to set it up.” The benefit of redistribution of commercial waste is a particularly salient point when you consider that household rubbish makes up only 10% of the UK’s waste.

The philosophys associated with freeganism attract both criticism and praise. Speaking to York students Sarah and James, both 20, I got a sense of respect for the underlying principle but cynicism with regards to it’s long term success. Both Sarah and James have been skipping a few times as students, and are friends with several self-confessed ‘anarchists’: “It’s like there are two different kinds of freegans,” says James, “The selfish kind and the charitable kind.” James and Sarah agree with the statement against waste made by skipping but are doubtful about how genuinely charitable or political some ‘skippers’ are.

Freeganism has only been peripheral to Sarah and James’ lives. Most of their skipping companions have graduated now, and due to a combination of increased ‘real-life’ commitments like jobs and partners and increased supermarket security, by and large they have left their freegan ways behind: “It’s quite depressing really,” says James: “I don’t think any of them are squatting anymore. They leave, they get a job in a call centre…” muses Sarah, “But I guess it seems a lot easier when you’re still a student with a loan and financial support.”

Sarah and James do consider the impact of their waste on the environment, but they are very aware of the implications of a freegan lifestyle. For them a human’s natural desire for property is disrupted by the more extreme freegan philosophies and the outcome is confusing: “It’s like, you ‘liberate’ some cake from the bins,” says Sarah, “But you still want it to be yours, because if you get back and one of your freegan friends steals your cake you’d be like – that’s my cake!” And on that sweet note, according to a 2008 article, 86,000 tonnes of cakes and puddings are thrown away every year in the UK.

Despite any doubts surrounding freeganism the problem of waste is undeniable. The statistics are everywhere and they are grotesque. According to a 2007 article by the National Environment Officers Network, the UK alone disposes of 7 million more tonnes of waste per year than any other European country. Pockets of hope are provided by some dedicated freegan individuals, such as Alice, whose efforts have the potential to prompt real change. There is clearly something worth considering, hippy environmentalist or otherwise.

“The term ‘freegan’ is more than an image” says Simon, “There are hippyish freegans but there are also a lot of freegans I know that look straight. It’s about self-discipline.”

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