I first heard of freegans in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 40 Days of Rain. In the novel, they’re primarily people who live on the streets, both before and after a major climatic event that destroys much of the infrastructure in Washington DC. The main character, Frank, half joins their ranks when he loses his home; he becomes involved in the culture and begins living out doors. The romanticism probably began there, for me.
But the pragmatism stuck. A freegan is a person who doesn’t believe in buying things, usually for political reasons. The example in the novel is primarily food, in that the freegans live off food scavenged from the back of supermarkets and restaurants, and it’s extraordinarily sensible. It’s estimated that one-fifth of food purchased for use in the home in Australia is thrown out, not because it’s bad food, but because it’s unneeded. The percentages for restaurants and other eateries are far higher: bakeries, for reasons of hygiene and legality, only donate part of their produce to charities at the end of the day, while throwing out the rest; fast food restaurants throw out food that has been sitting for more than fifteen minutes; and grocers throw out fruit that’s mildly blemished and just won’t move. These are the examples I have heard of, though I know there are more. An awful lot of food gets thrown out, usually food within its use by date, often still packaged and unopened.
Freeganism isn’t just about food, though. It’s about avoiding consumption entirely. And I can recite the political arguments for you all day – there are environmental reasons, in that we are using far too many resources; humane reasons, in that most of the people producing our goods do so in abject poverty and appalling conditions; and other reasons to do with simple waste and the inefficiency of our current system. Frankly, all of the above appeal to me, but I feel the last has a particular elegance. Capitalism has always been about making the most profit from minimum resources; how better to do this than to capitalise off the waste of others?
So I recently went out on a freegan food search. I’d done my internet research – interestingly, the biggest freegan exchange appears to have been down for over a month – and went more out of curiosity than necessity. I ventured out around dusk, so there would be some light, after my local shops had mostly closed.
I was unsuccessful, largely because most of the shops in my area had padlocked their bins shut, presumably to prevent unauthorised dumping, but also, maybe, to prevent people doing exactly what I was – it’s not unheard of. Supermarkets would much prefer that we buy their goods from the shelves, marked down ten minutes before they close, than to scavenge them for free an hour later. But preventing people from taking food that has been actually thrown out seems a bit beyond the pale for me.
Food scavenging failed for me, but it wasn’t my only attempt at the lifestyle. I practice a loose freeganism: I oppose buying new things, but I’m pretty okay about buying things second-hand. I moved out with my partner about a week ago, and the only things we bought new were two chests of drawers and a fridge. [We meant to buy a second-hand fridge, but the new one was a) more efficient and b) actually fit in the fridge space.] Everything else we acquired second-hand, from furniture to white goods to cooking utensils. It helped that I live within walking distance of a major recycling centre, but honestly? It wasn’t hard. We were given a couch by friends who were throwing it out, we bought a table and chairs from friends for forty dollars and were given a vacuum, coffee table, good knives, plates and bowls. Even my bike came second-hand from my Dad.
Because we took whatever we were offered, we didn’t spend a million years agonising over every inch of furniture, every nick in the table and whether it went with the curtains. We said yes, and went with it, fixed things as they needed it, and didn’t waste every Saturday in some bloody department store trying to get the best deal or the perfect piece of equipment. I watched my parents do that for years, and you know what happened in the end? They had a perfect house they fretted over every day, spent all their time maintaining and didn’t want their kids to mess up. And I get that some people want that, but it’s not my idea of fun. I’d rather get on with the business of living.
It’s not just me and my left-fringe environmentalism on this boat. There are now entire community groups devoted to free exchange of goods and services between members; there are clothing swaps which run on the same principles, even if they don’t use the label and every semester and council clean-up, students walk the streets to scavenge furniture. Trust me on that, it’s where some of my shelves came from.
And I’m advised there’s a clothing swap at the Carriageworks at the end of the month. I bought three new items of clothing all last year and only four this year, so maybe I’ll see you there.