Freeganism 101

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.

Georgia Claire

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thanks Georgia Claire. I think I’m an accidental freegan – though I generally buy my food. I have been tossing up the idea of buying a brand new coat, though. Tossing, tossing. And I mean brand new brand new, not brand new to me. Have you heard of freebay? There was or is an Australian version (even a Yarra Valley version) but I don’t seem to be able to find it today. Just think how much less waste there would be if we had to grow our own food and shear/spin our own thread and weave our own cloth to make our own clothes!

    1. Hi Clare,

      I too buy my food, although I try to buy as much as possible from our local farmer’s market. I figure that way I’m covering as many of my environmental and humane reasons as possible, and frankly, my freeganism isn’t about the money. I earn more than most people my age, I have more savings than my parents. It’s not about the money, it’s about the ideology.

      I’m also looking at buying new clothes at the moment. Because, in all seriousness, some of my clothes are about ready to fall off of me. Mostly because I bought them some years ago and have since worn them to death, so I feel somewhat justified in that I’ll only be replacing, not gaining new clothes, but there’s still a frisson of guilt there. I don’t want to be a mindless consumer, there’s far too much of that in our society. But I also need new freaking pants, you know?

      I don’t know freebay! It sounds exciting! Thanks for the link. 😀

  2. Freeganism rocks. But:

    “I have more savings than my parents. It’s not about the money, it’s about the ideology.”

    I have a bit of trouble understanding the above statement. Doesn’t the ideology involved in freeganism also encompass giving what you are not using to those who desperately need it?

    1. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever read any manifesto that suggests what you should do with any money you save. The movement is about minimising consumption and having a simpler life, which really means earning less and having a simpler lifestyle, too.

        1. hang on, I’ll check my manifesto …

          my staunch catholic godmother only has two of everything she has (sheets, items of clothing, shoes, etc – an ‘everyday’ set and a ‘best’ set – everything else goes to charity, it’s part of her catholic manifesto … but is catholicism RIGHT? ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are fascinating concepts – it’s wrong to send your children into danger – right? what if it’s the practiced way of getting water (from hippo infested lake)
          because without the adults, the children will suffer even more … mmm wrong and write, er, right.

          1. ps – wish I had more money than my parents 🙂 — but only if that meant I had more money cos I’d hate them to have less than me!

          2. Thanks for that Clare – I don’t think ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ have come into this topic yet. It sounds like your grandmother is very much on the freegan boat without ever saying as much – but I for one have very profound problems with religion in general.

            Also, saying I have more money than my parents really, really doesn’t mean a lot.

          3. he – I meant that if my parents had less money than me they’d be destitute ha! Anonymous brought ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ into the debate, didn’t s/he? Mind you – maybe your post has sparked a consumer-rebellion in me: I seem to have joined the hordes and found myself in ‘Eastland’ (truly another land) twice in one week! And bought myself NEW BOOTS! I have to admit – it’s exciting. But overall, the nonsense for sale and the hidden costs of ‘cheap’ things (see Jane Gleeson’s post here at Overland on Raj Patel) is appalling – the more freeganism, the better. We should all be growing our own food, that’s for sure. It hasn’t been many decades since the average person ceased to eat from their own vegie garden – we’ve been duped.

  3. Good on you Georgia, though judging by the throngs of people hanging out at shopping centres on the weekend (they really do seem to be enjoying themselves) or at anytime really, it’s going to be a while before freeganism catches on.

    1. Yeah I know! It’s bizarre. Romi and I went to buy some new work clothes for her on the weekend and a) it was really stressful and b) it was really tiring! We came home and both went to sleep for an hour. The whole mindset is bizarre and shopping itself is tedious! I don’t get it!

      But getting out of it? Feels great.

  4. I do scavenge food sometimes, and know communities here who do. Most people are quite ethical about it, taking only what they need, or else redistributing abundance. Bakeries are awesome for it, and so are Coles, if they havent locked the bins. Some bakeries and small fruit/veg places will actually give you the stuff they are throwing out if you go in and ask nicely, let them know it will be redistributed to the poor. I know a guy who found $50 in with the bread once….Electronics can often be found in the dumpster with cords cut off, if you know how to repair the cable. Travel and language books can be found with their covers torn off. I have found some of my favorite articles of clothing lying in the road. Just takes a little guts and stepping out of the box (and into the bin).

    A couple of important rules of thumb for dumpster diving
    1) watch out for broken glass
    2) Leave it tidy, or they’ll start locking their bins
    3) If there are bars on the top, but no padlock, simply remove the pin at the back.

    Oh, and when myself or others have been stopped by the police, they have allowed us to keep the scavenged stuff.

    I’ll never forget my first dumpster dive, 6 years ago, with a friend head down and legs up in the air, rummaging through the skip out the back of a very expensive health food store near the beach. After filling the back seat of his car with bottles and jars of fine organic foods and sauces, and getting about 15 loaves of bread (all to redistribute) I hear him swearing, “DAMN! No Spelt bread.” I guess beggars can be choosers.

    1. Suzanne, where are you based? I’d really like some people to go scavenging with and am not having any luck finding local groups – or, for that matter, food.

      Thanks for the rules! I’ve seen similar, but it’s important to get them out there. I’ve also been given a rule about only take it if the packaging is whole – you don’t know where it’s been otherwise.

  5. Hi Georgia
    Thanks for introducing an oldie like me to a new word freegan but the concept’s old. If you don’t know it check out Agnes Varda’s superb film about just this activity: The gleaners. Gleaning has been going on for time immemorial. Varda looks at its roots in rural poverty but updates it to urban scavenging. It’s an aesthetic masterpiece by an ageing member of NEW Wave cinema a big aesthetic bonus! I’ll never forget when I lived in Kew a man bicyling furiously towards me as I put out a couple of items – two 1930s dining chairs in need of TLC I couldn’t give them – for the council’s annual hard rubbish collection:”I got two from your pile last year,’ he gasped happily. Made me feel terrific that these objects were restored and re-loved!
    But the problem remains with the link between buying and identity. Unfortunately most selves have developed a core insecurity in our society – and don’t live in affirming sub-cultures. They want – and need – the gloss and glory of the NEW

    1. Hi Sophia,

      I agree wholeheartedly about it being a cultural problem, and the link between consumption and identity. I just didn’t want t jump that far in the deep end on this first post, because I didn’t want to scare people off! And, honestly, I’m still making up my own mind. I don’t want to start arguments til I have a good grip on what I think.

      I do know it’s an older concept, but I think the resurgence is taking on a new name for good reasons. I think the whole idea – and the general concept of thrift – has been out of fashion for a long time. We need a kickstart if we’re going to do it again. And I will keep an eye out for the film, it sounds great!

      Love the story about your chairs. 😀

  6. I think I’m still in the dark as to the politics of freeganism then. For me, it’s about anti-consumerism:

    consumption [kənˈsʌmpʃən]
    1. the act of consuming or the state of being consumed, esp by eating, burning, etc.
    2. (Economics) Economics expenditure on goods and services for final personal use

    And for me, saving a lot of money by practising freeganism, if that money stored up will eventually be used to consume (usually a larger product like a house/car/etc) is a bit of a contradiction, when the wealth could be re-distributed. I’d like to find out more about the philosophy behind freeganism though.

  7. Hello, I was wondering if there are any mentions of freeganism in literature. I know that there is an entire chapter in Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother that speaks about the experience but do you know any more? I’d appreciate an answer. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *