When I was in college, my roommates and I didn’t think twice about picking sofas, coffee tables, and housewares out of other people’s trash. Don’t get grossed out. We always gave them a good scrubbing and disinfecting when we got home. We were definitely tried and true dumpster divers, mostly because we were too broke to buy what we needed. It’s fun to see what treasures you can find that others have discarded, and you couldn’t beat the price tag: Free.
A good friend and former roommate took it a step further. She was a freegan, meaning she didn’t pay for anything unless absolutely necessary. She would search for bags of discarded donuts and bagels in the dumpster of the local bagel shop. She would pull boxes of perfectly good, unspoiled pasta and fresh produce out of the dumpster behind the health food store three blocks from our apartment. She once salvaged a CD player from the dumpster behind an out-of-business electronics store, working except for the pause button, and reams of paper from behind a defunct office supply shop.
I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical of the salvaged food, but she gave me a sneak peak into a different lifestyle. Sure, I liked to dumpster dive, but where I saw limitations, she saw opportunity. I dumpster dove so I could have a place to sit or something to put my television on. She did it to live, so she could eat better food and work fewer hours at her minimum-wage job: freeganism reduced her expenses so much that she only had to work one or two days a week to eat, live and pay her bills. And, we lived in a relatively expensive city.
What is a freegan, exactly?
It can mean a lot of things, but the heart of freeganism is reducing or eliminating wasteful consumption and use of the world’s resources. The site freegan.info says this:
“Affluent societies produce an amount of waste so enormous that many people can be fed and supported simply on its trash. As freegans we forage instead of buying to avoid being wasteful consumers ourselves.”
Yes, that means getting as much as they can out of the trash. Before you cringe, the freegan site says this:
“Despite our society’s stereotypes about garbage, the goods recovered by freegans are safe, usable, clean, and in perfect or near-perfect condition, a symptom of a throwaway culture that encourages us to constantly replace our older goods with newer ones, and where retailers plan high-volume product disposal as part of their economic model.”
Freegans and frugals have a lot of common ground. They don’t spend any money they don’t have to, and they deplore waste. Maybe it’s time for us frugal folks to think about incorporating some freegan-inspired (or freegan-light) ways into our lives. For example:
Dumpster dive: It doesn’t have to be for food. You can pick usable household items out of other people’s trash. Rental properties, college dorms at the end of Spring semester, and people who are moving are great spots for this. Or, like my friend, you could look through dumpsters behind major retailers looking for usable throwaway office supplies and housewares. I once got a really nice frying pan this way. I still use it 5 years later and it cost me nothing.
Get as much as you can for free: If you want free stuff but don’t want to dig through trash to get it, turn to Craigslist and Freecycle to fill your needs at no cost. On the flip side, post your unwanted items or discards on Craigslist or Freecycle, and keep it from going into the trash.
Intercept food before it goes into the trash: At my last office job, there was always a pot luck or a birthday cake somewhere. I noticed that half of it just ended up in the trash, so I started stashing Tupperware in my desk. After everyone was finished eating and the clean-up began, I’d ask if it was OK if I took something home and would stash it in my container. As long as you ask, most people are happy the food is going to a good home.
Swap: Get all of your friends together and host your own swap meet. Ask everyone to look in their closets and on their bookshelves for things they no longer want or need. everyone brings a box of stuff, and hopefully ends up trading it for something they need or will really use. Send any leftovers to charity. Swap parties sometimes work better the more people you have. Swap parties work really well with plants and garden items.
Recycle: Yes, that’s part of the freegan ethic and it should be part of yours too. If you are frugal and hate to waste, it’s logical to expect you not to waste, as in perfectly good recyclable paper and packaging. So please, hand over your leftovers to the recycling center. If you need more incentive consider taking your aluminum cans to the metal yard. It’ll net you a few dollars for your effort.
Go to or host a “free” market: This is just like what it sounds like: a market where all the goods and services are free. San Francisco, Flagstaff, AZ, and Carrboro and Raleigh, N.C., and Philadelphia are all home to free markets. If your city doesn’t have one, consider organizing your own. This is a variation on the personal swap meet, only on a community-wide scale.
Participate in a community garden or plant your own garden: In their effort to reduce waste, Freegans often grow their own food in community and personal gardens. What better way to save money, reduce the number of miles your produce has to travel from farm to table, than to grow it yourself? Some freegans also plant guerilla gardens, where they plant veggies or flowers on either abandoned overgrown lots or on public medians, to make use of otherwise wasted spaces.
My friend always had a few pots of seedlings on her balcony. She grew peppers, tomatoes, and one year even a few lentil plants. All were grown from free seeds of course, that she had culled from thrown-away veggies.
Dump the phantoms: Phantom loads that is. When she first moved in, my freegan friend unplugged all of the appliances, except the fridge, when weren’t using them. Phantom loads, or the energy your appliances and electronics use when they aren’t being used, really does add up to a substantial amount over time.Every dollar was precious at my house, so this just made sense.
Revisit your living situation. Freegans pay as little as possible for housing. Could you reduce your housing costs, say by getting a roommate or downsizing to a smaller apartment? This is easier for some people than others, but is worth considering. Until I got married, I always had a revolving array of friends, family, and roommates staying at my apartment. In college, we even turned our living room into an extra bedroom so we could add a summer-only roommate. It saved us $100 a month, which seemed like a fortune to us then.
The truly freegan lifestyle isn’t for everybody, but we can all learn something from freegan ways. Isn’t it time Americans stopped sending so many perfectly good items to the landfill? With the current economic crisis and many families feeling the pinch of falling home values, rising energy prices, and job loss, it may be time to revisit the idea of salvaging everything we can.