The New York Times
June 21, 2007
Not Buying It
By STEVEN KURUTZ
ON a Friday evening last month, the day after New York University’s class of 2007 graduated, about 15 men and women assembled in front of Third Avenue North, an N.Y.U. dormitory on Third Avenue and 12th Street. They had come to take advantage of the university’s end-of-the-year move-out, when students’ discarded items are loaded into big green trash bins by the curb.
New York has several colleges and universities, of course, but according to Janet Kalish, a Queens resident who was there that night, N.Y.U.’s affluent student body makes for unusually profitable Dumpster diving. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the gathering at the Third Avenue North trash bin quickly took on a giddy shopping-spree air, as members of the group came up with one first-class find after another.
Ben Ibershoff, a dapper man in his 20s wearing two bowler hats, dug deep and unearthed a Sharp television. Autumn Brewster, 29, found a painting of a Mediterranean harbor, which she studied and handed down to another member of the crowd.
Darcie Elia, a 17-year-old high school student with a half-shaved head, was clearly pleased with a modest haul of what she called “random housing stuff” — a desk lamp, a dish rack, Swiffer dusters — which she spread on the sidewalk, drawing quizzical stares from passers-by.
Ms. Elia was not alone in appreciating the little things. “The small thrills are when you see the contents of someone’s desk and find a book of stamps,” said Ms. Kalish, 44, as she stood knee deep in the trash bin examining a plastic toiletries holder.
A few of those present had stumbled onto the scene by chance (including a janitor from a nearby homeless center, who made off with a working iPod and a tube of body cream), but most were there by design, in response to a posting on the Web site freegan.info.
The site, which provides information and listings for the small but growing subculture of anticonsumerists who call themselves freegans — the term derives from vegans, the vegetarians who forsake all animal products, as many freegans also do — is the closest thing their movement has to an official voice. And for those like Ms. Elia and Ms. Kalish, it serves as a guide to negotiating life, and making a home, in a world they see as hostile to their values.
Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism. They forage through supermarket trash and eat the slightly bruised produce or just-expired canned goods that are routinely thrown out, and negotiate gifts of surplus food from sympathetic stores and restaurants.
They dress in castoff clothes and furnish their homes with items found on the street; at freecycle.com, where users post unwanted items; and at so-called freemeets, flea markets where no money is exchanged. Some claim to hold themselves to rigorous standards. “If a person chooses to live an ethical lifestyle it’s not enough to be vegan, they need to absent themselves from capitalism,” said Adam Weissman, 29, who started freegan.info four years ago and is the movement’s de facto spokesman.
Freeganism dates to the mid-’90s, and grew out of the antiglobalization and environmental movements, as well as groups like Food Not Bombs, a network of small organizations that serve free vegetarian and vegan food to the hungry, much of it salvaged from food market trash. It also has echoes of groups like the Diggers, an anarchist street theater troupe based in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960’s, which gave away food and social services.
According to Bob Torres, a sociology professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who is writing a book about the animal rights movement — which shares many ideological positions with freeganism — the freegan movement has become much more visible and increasingly popular over the past year, in part as a result of growing frustrations with mainstream environmentalism.
Environmentalism, Mr. Torres said, “is becoming this issue of, consume the right set of green goods and you’re green,” regardless of how much in the way of natural resources those goods require to manufacture and distribute.
“If you ask the average person what can you do to reduce global warming, they’d say buy a Prius,” he added.
There are freegans all over the world, in countries as far afield as Sweden, Brazil, South Korea, Estonia and England (where much has been made of what The Sun recently called the “wacky new food craze” of trash-bin eating), and across the United States as well .
In Southern California, for example, “you can find just about anything in the trash, and on a consistent basis, too,” said Marko Manriquez, 28, who has just graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in media studies and is the creator of “Freegan Kitchen,” a video blog that shows gourmet meals being made from trash-bin ingredients. “This is how I got my futon, chair, table, shelves. And I’m not talking about beat-up stuff. I mean it’s not Design Within Reach, but it’s nice.”
But New York City in particular — the financial capital of the world’s richest country — has emerged as a hub of freegan activity, thanks largely to Mr. Weissman’s zeal for the cause and the considerable free time he has to devote to it. (He doesn’t work and lives at home in Teaneck, N.J., with his father and elderly grandparents.)
Freegan.info sponsors organize Trash Tours that typically attract a dozen or more people, as well as feasts at which groups of about 20 people gather in apartments around the city to share food and talk politics.
In the last year or so, Mr. Weissman said, the site has increased the number and variety of its events, which have begun attracting many more first-time participants. Many of those who have taken part in one new program, called Wild Foraging Walks — workshops that teach people to identify edible plants in the wilderness — have been newcomers, he said.
The success of the movement in New York may also be due to the quantity and quality of New York trash. As of 2005, individuals, businesses and institutions in the United States produced more than 245 million tons of municipal solid waste, according to the E.P.A. That means about 4.5 pounds per person per day. The comparable figure for New York City, meanwhile, is about 6.1 pounds, according to statistics from the city’s Sanitation Department.
“We have a lot of wealthy people, and rich people throw out more trash than poor people do,” said Elizabeth Royte, whose book “Garbage Land” (Little, Brown, 2005) traced the route her trash takes through the city. “Rich people are also more likely to throw things out based on style obsolescence — like changing the towels when you’re tired of the color.”
At the N.Y.U. Dorm Dive, as the event was billed, the consensus was that this year’s spoils weren’t as impressive as those in years past. Still, almost anything needed to decorate and run a household — a TV cart, a pillow, a file cabinet, a half-finished bottle of Jägermeister — was there for the taking, even if those who took them were risking health, safety and a $100 fine from the Sanitation Department.
Ms. Brewster and her mother, who had come from New Jersey, loaded two area rugs into their cart. Her mother, who declined to give her name, seemed to be on a search for laundry detergent, and was overjoyed to discover a couple of half-empty bottles of Trader Joe’s organic brand. (Free and organic is a double bonus). Nearby, a woman munched on a found bag of Nature’s Promise veggie fries.
As people stuffed their backpacks, Ms. Kalish, who organized the event (Mr. Weissman arrived later), demonstrated the cooperative spirit of freeganism, asking the divers to pass items down to people on the sidewalk and announcing her finds for anyone in need of, say, a Hoover Shop-Vac.
“Sometimes people will swoop in and grab something, especially when you see a half-used bottle of Tide detergent,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want it? But most people realize there’s plenty to go around.” She rooted around in the trash bin and found several half-eaten jars of peanut butter. “It’s a never-ending supply,” she said.
Many freegans are predictably young and far to the left politically, like Ms. Elia, the 17-year-old, who lives with her father in Manhattan. She said she became a freegan both for environmental reasons and because “I’m not down with capitalism.”
There are also older freegans, like Ms. Kalish, who hold jobs and appear in some ways to lead middle-class lives. A high school Spanish teacher, Ms. Kalish owns a car and a two-family house in Queens, renting half of it as a “capitalist landlord,” she joked. Still, like most freegans, she seems attuned to the ecological effects of her actions. In her house, for example, she has laid down a mosaic of freegan carpet parcels instead of replacing her aging wooden floor because, she said, “I’d have to take trees from the forest.”
Not buying any new manufactured products while living in the United States is, of course, basically impossible, as is avoiding everything that requires natural resources to create, distribute or operate. Don’t freegans use gas or electricity to cook, for example, or commercial products to brush their teeth?
“Once in a while I may buy a box of baking soda for toothpaste,” Mr. Weissman said. “And, sure, getting that to market has negative impacts, like everything.” But, he said, parsing the point, a box of baking soda is more ecologically friendly than a tube of toothpaste, because its cardboard container is biodegradable.
These contradictions and others have led some people to suggest that freegans are hypocritical, making use of the capitalist system even as they rail against it. And even Mr. Weissman, who is often doctrinaire about the movement, acknowledges when pushed that absolute freeganism is an impossible dream.
Mr. Torres said: “I think there’s a conscious recognition among freegans that you can never live perfectly.” He added that generally freegans “try to reduce the impact.”
It’s not that freeganism doesn’t require serious commitment. For freegans, who believe that the production and transport of every product contributes to economic and social injustice, usually in multiple ways, any interaction with the marketplace is fraught. And for some freegans in particular — for instance, Madeline Nelson, who until recently was living an upper-middle-class Manhattan life with all the attendant conveniences and focus on luxury goods — choosing this way of life involves a considerable, even radical, transformation.
Ms. Nelson, who is 51, spent her 20s working in restaurants and living in communal houses, but by 2003 she was earning a six-figure salary as a communications director for Barnes & Noble. That year, while demonstrating against the Iraq war, she began to feel hypocritical, she said, explaining: “I thought, isn’t this safe? Here I am in my corporate job, going to protests every once in a while. And part of my job was to motivate the sales force to sell more stuff.”
After a year of progressively scaling back — no more shopping at Eileen Fisher, no more commuting by means other than a bike — Ms. Nelson, who had a two-bedroom apartment with a mortgage in Greenwich Village, quit her job in 2005 to devote herself full-time to political activism and freeganism.
She sold her apartment, put some money into savings, and bought a one-bedroom in Flatbush, Brooklyn, that she owns outright.
“My whole point is not to be paying into corporate America, and I hated paying a big loan to a bank,” she said while fixing lunch in her kitchen one recent afternoon. The meal — potato and watercress soup and crackers and cheese — had been made entirely from refuse left outside various grocery stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The bright and airy prewar apartment Ms. Nelson shares with two cats doesn’t look like the home of someone who spends her evenings rooting through the garbage. But after some time in the apartment, a visitor begins to see the signs of Ms. Nelson’s anticonsumerist way of life.
An old lampshade in the living room has been trimmed with fabric to cover its fraying parts, leaving a one-inch gap where the material ran out. The ficus tree near the window came not from a florist, Ms. Nelson said, but from the trash, as did the CD rack. A 1920s loveseat belonged to her grandmother, and an 18th-century, Louis XVI-style armoire in the bedroom is a vestige of her corporate life.
The kitchen cabinets and refrigerator are stuffed with provisions — cornmeal, Pirouline cookies, vegetarian cage-free eggs — appropriate for a passionate cook who entertains often. All were free.
She longs for a springform pan in which to make cheesecakes, but is waiting for one to come up on freecycle.com. There are no new titles on the bookshelves; she hasn’t bought a new book in six months. “Books were my impulse buy,” said Ms. Nelson, whose short brown hair and glasses frame a youthful face. Now she logs onto bookcrossing.com, where readers share used books, or goes to the public library.
But isn’t she depriving herself unnecessarily? And what’s so bad about buying books, anyway? “I do have some mixed feelings,” Ms. Nelson said. “It’s always hard to give up class privilege. But freegans would argue that the capitalist system is not sustainable. You’re exploiting resources.” She added, “Most people work 40-plus hours a week at jobs they don’t like to buy things they don’t need.”
Since becoming a freegan, Ms. Nelson has spent her time posting calendar items and other information online and doing paralegal work on behalf of bicyclists arrested at Critical Mass anticar rallies. “I’m not sitting in the house eating bonbons,” she said. “I’m working. I’m just not working for money.”
She is also spending a lot of time making rounds for food and supplies at night, and has come to know the cycles of the city’s trash. She has learned that fruit tends to get thrown out more often in the summer (she freezes it and makes sorbet), and that businesses are a source for envelopes. A reliable spot to get bread is Le Pain Quotidien, a chain of bakery-restaurants that tosses out six or seven loaves a night. But Ms. Nelson doesn’t stockpile. “The sad fact is you don’t need to,” she said. “More trash will be there tomorrow.”
By and large, she said, her friends have been understanding, if not exactly enthusiastic about adopting freeganism for themselves. “When she told me she was doing this I wasn’t really surprised — Madeline is a free spirit,” said Eileen Dolan, a librarian at a Manhattan law firm who has known Ms. Nelson since their college days at Stony Brook. But while Ms. Dolan agrees that society is wasteful, she said that going freegan is not something she would ever do. “It’s a huge time commitment,” she said.
ONE evening a week after the Dorm Dive, a group of about 20 freegans gathered in a sparely furnished, harshly lit basement apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to hold a feast. It was an egalitarian affair with no one officially in charge, but Mr. Weissman projected authority, his blue custodian-style work pants and fuzzy black beard giving him the air of a Latin American revolutionary as he wandered around, trailed by a Korean television crew.
Ms. Kalish stood over the sink, slicing vegetables for a stir-fry with a knife she had found in a trash bin at N.Y.U. A pot of potatoes simmered on the stove. These, like much of the rest of the meal, had been gathered two nights earlier, when Mr. Weissman, Ms. Kalish and others had met in front of a Food Emporium in Manhattan and rummaged through the store’s clear garbage bags.
The haul had been astonishing in its variety: sealed bags of organic vegetable medley, bagged salad, heirloom tomatoes, key limes, three packaged strawberries-and-chocolate-dip kits, carrots, asparagus, grapes, a carton of organic soy milk (expiration date: July 9), grapefruit, mushrooms and, for those willing to partake, vacuum-packed herb turkey breast. (Some freegans who avoid meat will nevertheless eat it rather than see it go to waste.)
As operatic music played on a radio, people mingled and pitched in. One woman diced onions, rescuing pieces that fell on floor. Another, who goes by the name Petal, emptied bags of salad into a pan. As rigorous and radical as the freegan world view can be, there is also something quaint about the movement, at least the version that Mr. Weissman promotes, with its embrace of hippie-ish communal activities and its household get-togethers that rely for diversion on conversation rather electronic entertainment.
Making things last is part of the ethos. Christian Gutierrez, a 33-year-old former model and investment banker, sat at the small kitchen table, chatting. Mr. Gutierrez, who quit his banking job at Matthews Morris & Company in 2004 to pursue filmmaking, became a freegan last year, and opened a free workshop on West 36th Street in Manhattan to teach bicycle repair. He plans to add lessons in fixing home computers in the near future.
Mr. Gutierrez’s lifestyle, like Ms. Nelson’s, became gradually more constricted in the absence of a steady income. He lived in a Midtown loft until last year, when, he said, he got into a legal battle with his landlord over a rent increase — a relationship “ruined by greed,” he said. After that, he lived in his van for a while, then found an illegal squat in SoHo, which he shares with two others. Mr. Gutierrez had a middle-class upbringing in Dallas, and he said he initially found freeganism off-putting. But now he is steadfastly devoted to the way of life.
As people began to load plates of food, he leaned in and offered a few words of wisdom: “Opening that first bag of trash,” he said, “is the biggest step.”
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