The Statement

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Fine (dumpster) dining


Published February 11, 2009

Imagine coming home to a dozen bouquets of flowers. They are so numerous that it was necessary to use cups, tomato sauce jars and beer bottles as makeshift vases. Then your lover tells you a dirty secret — these flowers are, in fact, dumpster flowers. And you fall even more in love.

These are the life and times — and treasures — of a freegan.
The title of “queen diver” would seem to belong to some pool high-dive champion. But in the case of one campus co-op house, the title refers to Cat, the house’s top dumpster diver. I spoke with Cat in her kitchen while she prepared dinner for her housemates. Well-stocked with grains and produce, the kitchen centered around a wooden table where her housemates arranged bouquets of flowers from the previous night’s diving trip. Cat and her housemates asked that their full names and the name of their co-op not be used in this article since dumpster diving is illegal.

Regular diving trips are the main source of the co-opers’ freegan lifestyle. Freeganism, a play off of veganism, is an anti-consumerist philosophy where practitioners seek to minimize the use of resources by limiting their reliance on commercial markets. When it comes to food, this means a diet based largely on homegrown produce and dumpster loot.
“Our culture is one that wastes a lot of things … so we’ve made a commitment to reduce our consumption that benefits us and our community,” Cat said.

At heart, freeganism is about environmentalism above specific political or economic views. The defining rule of freeganism is to reduce one’s consumption, especially through diet. As Cat explains it, there are too many problems with the current agricultural system for her to endorse it with her money. Transportation and packaging adds greatly to the use of energy and fossil fuels, while packaging contributes equally to the size of our landfills. On top of that, traditional farming practices deplete soil of its natural resources by overplanting, and the lost minerals are replaced by ecologically damaging petrochemical fertilizers.

It’s true that there is a strong economic argument against freeganism. Grocery shopping helps to sustain the faltering economy, and some studies have shown that the positive effects of other consumption philosophies like “eating local” are uncertain. But it’s also true that all around Ann Arbor, items like gourmet cheese and two-day-old sourdough bread is still good to be eaten but won’t be unless someone claims it from a dumpster.

Many freegans, including Cat, are also practicing vegans. Although she said she isn’t against eating meat, she doesn’t agree with the conventional practices of raising and slaughtering meat and the overconsumption of meat in the U.S. Conventionally, animals like cows are raised on grains in confined spaces. Vegans and vegetarians often have qualms with this because the practice uses excessive amounts of energy in the production of grain and raises questions about animal health and rights and food safety.

When they have to buy food, freegans choose3 to buy from local sources that preserve the soil, reduce transportation and promote healthy animal-rearing practices. But even if food has been shipped across the country, they feel it’s economically and environmentally all right to dive for it after it has been discarded.

If attending an event with free food, most freegans won’t accept a meal unless they know it’s been conscientiously grown or produced. If they visit a friend who’s prepared a meal from Meijer, though, freegans are likely to indulge.

As our conversation came to a close, Cat invited me on my first diving trip: “I’ll give you some gloves and a head lamp and you can jump in with me.” The date was set for the following evening.

Before I left after the interview, a housemate handed me a velvet red rose plucked from the house’s dumpster garden. Instead of the rose’s usual romantic suggestion, it was clear this flower expressed a love for the environment. I walked home in high spirits, imagining what kind of souvenir I would find on my trip.

Around midnight last Sunday, Cat and I recovered several plastic milk crates from the snow in front of the co-op and piled into her car with two other divers. When we arrived at a local supermarket, we noticed another car. “We’ve got competition,” a housemate noted.

While waiting for the store’s employees to filter out, Cat explained diving etiquette. Since diving is illegal and divers don’t want to contact the police in case of a dispute, they’ve developed their own decorum to deal with other divers.

As the other car had been waiting longer, they had first diving dibs. This means that they will be allowed to jump in first and will have first dibs over the spoils. Still, as per freegan law, there is usually equal sharing among the divers.

Secondly, neither car would drive near the dumpster until all employees had cleared out.