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October 23, 2013 at 9:21 AMComments: 8 Faves: 1

Waste Not, Want Not: Going Freegan

By Breana Ostrander More Blogs by This Author

This is not another fad diet. 

Well, maybe it is, in a certain manner, but it's certainly not for the faint of heart. Or should I say, stomach.

According to their website, Freeganism is a “ boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts, most of which we may never even consider”

It's a subculture within a subculture.

Have you ever made fun of a hipster? Me too. These people are definitely hipsters, but they're hipsters with a cause. Instead of going to the grocery store during the day, they go to the dumpsters at night wearing headlamps and old tennis shoes. Instead of buying a lamp for the front room at Ikea, they check out for their home furnishings. Instead of keeping all of their food at home, they frequently participate in programs like Food Not Bombs, using the plethora of usable food they've found in dumpsters to feed their community. Freegans can be dumpster divers, recyclers, hitchhikers, squatters, gardeners, and more. They are recycling idealists 2.0.

The key to being a freegan is choosing to not take part in the money exchange that is so embedded in our society. This can mean reclaiming waste, minimizing your own waste, eco-friendly transportation, rent-free housing, going green, and choosing to not take part in a 9-5 lifestyle. 

Freegans are not necessarily homeless, poor, or even overly eclectic people. They're college students, parents, and coworkers. Additionally, all freegans are not dumpster divers, and all dumpster divers are not freegans either. A freegan could grow their own garden as opposed to diving for food, for example. They also don't dive exclusively for food. Diving for clothing and other amenities is a form of freeganism as well. These are the people that look at thrift store kids and yell “OG!”. 

Freeganism requires patience and manners.

When freegans are dumpster diving, there are some general guidelines they follow. First, because dumpster diving is of questionable legality, they wait until after hours to dive. In some cities it is explicitly illegal, but in others, it is just the question of trespassing on store property. So they wait. Next, if a diver gets there before you, wait for them to finish their foraging before you begin yours. Finally, they try to leave the area just as clean as they found it, and they leave when asked. Is there the occasional outlier to these rules? Yes, absolutely. Some people just suck, no matter how environmentally aware they may be.

Isn't the food spoiled?

If you check out some of the comments on the articles I've referenced below, you'll see countless posts questioning the cleanliness of freeganism or whether or not the food is okay to eat. The FDA actually does not have any explicit regulations on sell-by or best-used-before dates. These are guidelines for the store. A product is usually good for 1-2 weeks after the sell-by date, and a best-used-before date is simply a guideline that doesn't take into account the environment in which the product is in. Most freegans are vegans as well (free + vegan = freegan, get it?), so even if they did find perfectly frozen meat in the dead of winter they'd likely avoid it. What this translates to is dumpster diving for your food is probably pretty safe. The stores are throwing out this huge amount of food for cosmetic reasons or because they're getting a new shipment in and need more room. This is unfortunate, but true, for many grocery stores. This also does not mean you should dive in with no hesitation. Pay attention to the condition of produce and other goods, and wash the produce when you get home. I wouldn't advise eating anything that has been opened either.

Freeganism has been gaining attention.

It's getting surprisingly common. I have friends that do late night runs to the Krispy Kreme dumpster, where apparently the day's excess donuts are actually boxed before being placed carefully into the dumpster. There are universities where student groups do the diving and then give the food out for free on campus. Or, if your friends aren't into it, you can check out one of the many dumpster diving groups that probably operate in your local city center.

Freeganism has also recently been showcased in the media. The East is a Sundance film that has a scary-powerful extremist view of what our culture's unnecessary excessiveness is doing to the very people that utilize and control it, but it also displays some pretty good examples of successful freeganism.

Is this an overly idealistic movement?

Yes, it certainly is. Freegans quite literally live off of the very culture that they're boycotting. It is really cool for my friends to be able to grab a couple of donuts for free on their way home, but it isn't necessarily doable for everyone, for every meal, or for every situation. Even the freegan spokesman, for lack of better word, Adam Weissman, apparently “...acknowledges when pushed that absolute freeganism is an impossible dream”. Many followers of the freegan lifestyle in fact will tell you that they're just trying to “reduce the impact” as opposed to creating a freegan utopia.

I don't think that's the point though. The point is our society excessively uses goods, and assumes that they just disappear after the truck comes to collect their trash. Freegans are simply trying to minimize what they add to that. So if you ever do happen across a dumpster diver, try and treat them with the respect that Krispy Kreme gives to their leftovers.

Being a freegan basically means that you're environmentally aware, frugal, and not afraid to get your hands dirty.

It's also overly idealistic, quite messy, and of questionable legality. At the end of a freegan day though, you still might end up with some snazzy pants or Trader Joe's Cookie Butter for free. And for that reason alone, I might try it once or twice. 


Yahoo Group: The Compact - Life Off the Consumer Grid

Food Not Bombs: Groups in Michigan

Trash Wiki: United States of America

MeetUp: Dumpster Diving Grand Rapids

MLive: Dumpster diving with purpose: Grand Rapids Freegans make political statement by seraching through trash

The Michigan Daily: Fine (Dumpster) Dining


FDA: Did you know that a store can sell food past the expiration date?

The New York Times: Not Buying It

More from Breana Ostrander Others Are Reading


  • Nice article, Breanna!

    My grandpa has been doing this for years. I told him about the movement and his response was, "Damn hippies stealing my food." Haha!

  • While I hate the corporatism in the food industry I can't see it driving me to the point where I gather my meals from a discard receptacle.

    I dig the dedication thought. You have to be a special kind of dedicated to scrounge for a scrapes in another's waste.

  • It's definitely dedication. I think I could handle diving for food, but diving for clothes would freak me out a lot more.

  • One of my friends got his current game server from dumpster diving. IIRC the RAM and motherboard were FUBAR but the rest was salvageable and, a few replacement parts later, the machine was up and running!

  • I loved the article and your writing style!
    The actual culture trend, though? Yikes.
    If you ever get the chance, I would suggest reading "On Dumpster Diving" by Lars Eighner. This was a pre-freegan piece that seems to have incredibly similar ideologies.

  • There are too many people starving in the world, food wastage is not acceptable.

  • Although I see this as a way of survival I cannot help but think how unhealthy it might be
    IE: what if a rat was the last thing or animal to chew on something someone may choose ,? the other side of that coin is I most probably would do it if I were homeless and hungry

    In the real world my wish will never happen but I wish there were places (always everyday))) where people who are out there could get fed: It's very sad:

  • Very interesting article!

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