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. If either pounced while employees were still clearing out the store, they would surely be kicked out. But it was also a matter of respect, Cat explained. Although some employees may have suspected why the two cars were there, they had no intention of creating trouble for the divers unless the looting occurred right in their presence. Finally, divers must always return the dumpster to the condition in which they found it, leaving no mess or sign of disturbance for the storeowners to deal with the next day.
After the last car exited and the other divers jumped in, we made our move. Using the hole created for the dumpster truck’s forklift, Cat vaulted herself into a wonderland of excess. Slowly, bags were lifted through the hole and passed to those of us waiting below.
That Cat submerged herself in a dumpster isn’t as filthy as it would seem. The trash bags she rifled through were filled solely with packaged food items that had just been picked off the shelves. Packaged potatoes, netted citrus fruits and paper-wrapped breads each filled their own garbage bags. There were bags of apples, oranges, limes, lettuce, plastic-boxed strawberries, red currants, cookies and egg cartons tainted only by some ice cream that had spilled.
Then, two entire garbage bags were devoted to day-old bread. Another two or three bags to apples and oranges and two bags to baby red potatoes that were so heavy I nearly collapsed under the weight. In one last bag were eight shrink-wrapped blocks of expensive blue, cheddar and French Raclette cheeses. The problem with these cheeses wasn’t age — it was only a slight misshapenness that made them unsuitable for the grocery’s display.
Finally, it was my turn. I donned my headlight and rubber gloves and took the forklift step into the grocery abyss. I immediately noticed that it wasn’t the eggshell and coffee-grounds-littered receptacle I imagined. It could almost, bizarrely, be described as clean. It still stood its ground as a dumpster, though, as a grimy bottom layer and accompanying odor became more apparent with the opening and emptying of subsequent bags. After a few minutes of sifting, I decided my efforts would be better put towards sorting and exited the dumpster.
Rumor has it that diving virgins will find either chocolate or wine on their first trip. While this first-timer didn’t leave with either aphrodisiac, the four trash bags full of flowers were a fine substitute. Each bag contained roughly a dozen plastic-wrapped bouquets, which Cat and her housemates plan to distribute to other co-ops for Valentine’s Day.
Since Cat is a strict vegan, she did not pick up the few packages of Italian sausages that appeared in some trash bags. She did, however, pick out the eggs and blocks of cheese for her non-vegan roommates who might have otherwise contributed to the mass consumption of these products.
This illustrates the major difference between vegans and freegans: while neither group will pay for meat, freegans will consume it if it’s been saved from a dumpster. “If it’s going into the dumpster, I will happily take some meat,” said Cat’s vegan housemate Dani. On the other hand, a third roommate, Brandon, said that “dumpster meat would be a line that I wouldn’t cross.” Either way, all housemates are careful only to take animal products in the winter when the cold weather will prevent the meat from going bad.
Although some produce looked past its expiration date, the vast majority of it lacked significant signs of decay. According to Cat, there were a few reasons for this — when supermarkets are overstocked or have a new shipment of food, the excess is bagged and sent to the dumpster. Brandon added that in the case of packaged stock, if a jar of peanut butter leaks over eleven other jars, the entire case is thrown out. Other products had only just passed their sell-by date but hadn’t yet shown signs of rotting.
In addition to rules of etiquette, the co-op also has fairly rigid sanitary practices. No loose or open items like stray bananas or opened boxes of crackers are brought back to the co-op and everything is sorted for decay before being stored in the kitchen. The “when in doubt, throw it out” rule always applies.
Cat needs to uphold these practices to meet her own safety standards and those of her few roommates who are finicky about dumpster food. Because of these practices, she has helped supply the co-op with one-third to one-fourth of its weekly food supply and has never had a case of food poisoning.
The diving queen reasoned that one of the largest deterrents for others is the natural association of trash with contamination. But she has been able to turn skeptics onto dumpster meals because of the quality of food retrieved and the layers of protective plastic wrapping.
As we left the grocery store with a trunk filled to the brim, I was content that the company’s trash had been reduced by what seemed like almost a third — there will be a lot less trash headed to the landfill this week. The wheel has come full circle: both the freegans and their community benefited and that, as my seventh grade biology teacher taught me, is mutualism.
My diving partners asked that I don’t reveal the store we visited so it will be safe for future foraging, but there are a few tips for novice freegans or anyone who would like to lower their grocery costs.
Look into a supermarket’s delivery cycles. One supermarket might get new shipments of flowers on Fridays and produce on Mondays — meaning that they’ll likely be clearing their shelves in preparation. This varies across supermarkets, so you’ll have to familiarize yourself with your local grocer’s habits. “Whole Foods sucks,” Cat declared, because they compact and lock their dumpsters. So, of all places, don’t start there.
Although this adventure focused on food, freeganism applies to anything that’s free. Cat has also dived behind thrift stores and recommends freecycle.org, where she once procured a washing machine.
That’s the story of the intrigue behind a simple recycled rose. Now that I know the economic, environmental, and community benefits of freeganism, I understand why someone would fall head over heels for a few bouquets of dumpster flowers. What can I say? My rose, in a measuring cup of water on my desk, is now even redder and more radiant than when I first received it.