Skip to main content
Expand AU Menu

Redefining trash to make a statement

‘Freegan’ lifestyle goes beyond dumpster-diving

By Kristin McGrath

The cars were parked in the spaces clearly labeled, “15 minute customer parking ONLY.” Yet this was a daytime rule, one that, at 25 minutes after midnight, had no authority — much like the rule that anyone wanting food from a grocery store must enter during operating hours, fill a cart with unblemished produce and pay for it.

On this particular spring night, the Trader Joe’s in Falls Church, Va. — or, rather, its dumpster, was the first stop for the cars’ occupants. As it turned out, it wasn’t even necessary to go into the dumpster — nine shopping carts surrounded it, filled with bulging plastic bags. Inside were discarded loaves of Tuscan Pane bread, zucchini, oatmeal, chocolate chip scones, pita bread, naan, a package of brownie cookies, strawberries and some non-edible items, including a Trader Joe’s T-shirt, wrapping paper and some greeting cards.

Two men wearing authoritative-looking florescent yellow and orange vests approached. If they were store employees or security, the group would be asked, or more likely ordered, to leave.

SOC DC Intersections Trash

But they were only Metro employees heading into the neighboring 7-Eleven, their expressions a mix of bafflement and curiosity. They slowed their pace, eyes trained on the group — five young people behind an upscale grocery store in a nice neighborhood, rummaging through the trash in the middle of the night.

Yet this group’s story is not about trash. It’s about taking a stand against what society considers to be trash.

Ask them who they are, and they’ll tell you they are Freegans. Ask them what they do and they’ll tell you a lot: they take what stores throw out and use it themselves or donate it; they do their part (however small in number they may be) to chip away at what they see as mountains of waste; they try to live their lives in ways that fall outside the cycle of consumerism. And they give, to borrow from the old saying, “one man’s trash” another chance to be useful in the world.

One of their most controversial strategies – the online community calls it “notorious” – is dumpster diving, searching dumpsters for food.


Redefining trash to make a statement

This div will be replaced

D.C. Intersections is the class Web site for American University School of Communication’s Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting Fall 2010 class, taught by Prof. Angie Chuang.

Lynda Biaou, 23, one of the group’s organizers and a college student, describes what she does as “curbside shopping taken to another level.” Nobody has gotten sick from the food she has found, she says (she, her brother and her sister have been getting around 80 percent of the food for their apartment from dumpsters). She always wears latex gloves, and the group members carefully examine the sell-by dates on all the food they find, which, they point out, is not the same thing as an expiration date. After she brings the food home, Biaou goes through the ritual of cleaning the produce with vinegar.

For some, Biaou suspects, the derision of dumpster diving might be a “pride thing,” even for for those who label themselves eco-friendly and try to minimize their carbon footprint.

“They say they’re trying to watch how they’re wasteful,” she says. “It’s cool to go into upscale grocery stores and spend 10 dollars on what’s quote-unquote ‘organic.’ But that same organic produce is just put in a bag — and they don’t just toss it in the dumpster. They double-bag it, and they seal it up first. And sometimes the stuff is still in its package. Why can’t you consume that? That’s what bothers me.”

Biaou and the five to seven others who accompany her each week on dives in the D.C. area coordinate through the networking Web site Biaou founded the Washington DC Freegan and Dumpster Diving Meetup in January, barely a month after she discovered Freeganism by watching a documentary on television.

Intrigued, she traveled to New York City, where organized bands of as many as 40 take part in what they call “trash tours.” After learning the basics from a veteran organizer in New York, Biaou returned to D.C., hopeful that such a group could exist in a more staid metropolitan area. The D.C. group now has more than 90 members, and the latest e-mails and online discussions center on mobilizing them in charitable activities.

The regulars are a mix of students, parents, professionals and activists. Some had been diving on their own before the group. Others, like Juliana Morris, a 24-year-old student, had been waiting for someone to step forward and form one.

The ethos behind Freeganism, Morris says, reflects the way she wants to live her life — wasting as little as possible — and reflects the values gleaned from her volunteer work at soup kitchens. Saving money to help pay rent while living on a meager salary doesn’t hurt either.

“This year in particular, the money-saving reasons are actually quite important,” Morris says. “I get to eat nicer things I wouldn’t be able to buy, like nice breads that I wouldn’t buy for myself. … If I weren’t getting the bread, I’d be eating rice.”

Getting something for free, however, is not the only reason members of the group dive.

“I’m not diving because we can’t afford to buy food,” says Esther Rodriguez, 32. “I’m diving because I can’t consciously know that grocery stores are throwing away this good food.”

Rodriguez is a mother of three children (10 months old, 3 and 5). Dumpster diving, which she discovered on an episode of “Oprah,” has become a natural extension of her habit of salvaging and donating the furniture and clothing her neighbors leave on the curb on trash pick-up day. Now, she says, it’s a way for her to “let the stores know that we know how much they’re wasting.”

Her husband insisted on researching the safety of dumpster diving first and “wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get thrown in jail,” Rodriguez says. But now he is on board, and the family saves $50 to $75 on the weeks she dives. Although she says she’ll be honest about the food’s origins with her children when they get a little older, for now, she simply replies “Trader Joe’s” when her 3-year-old daughter wakes up, sees the new food in the kitchen and asks, “What store? What store, Mom?”

“They love the fruit,” says Rodriguez. “They absolutely love the fruit. My family are huge fruit eaters. My husband enjoys the bread. When I come home, he’s always like, ‘Watcha get? Watcha get?’ ”

For veterans and newcomers alike, though, the amount of waste is shocking each week.

“What,” Biaou asked during the Falls Church dive, “is wrong with this?”

She held up a potato, rescued from a garbage can behind Whole Foods.

“Nothing,” she said, tucking it in her bag. “Nothing is wrong with it. Why would you trash this?”

A flashlight illuminated the rest of the bin’s contents — a veritable cornucopia of Granny Smith apples, tomatoes, pears, oranges and more potatoes.  The group eagerly bagged them — even the bruised fruit could be used to make fresh-squeezed juice.

While Freegans see what they do as giving waste a second chance, store management tends to disagree.

What is found in the dumpsters is there for a reason, according to Johnny Lawless, a store manager at Trader Joe’s in Silver Spring, Md.

“The stuff that is just bad, the stuff that can’t be trusted, we obviously have to dispose of,” he says.

The store, Lawless says, donates food every day to local charitable organizations to cut down on waste. Although he could not say which organizations those were, he says the store donates a wide range of food, from bread, to meats to dairy.

The store’s employees, he says, will ask dumpster divers to leave. If they don’t leave, the police will be called. Although the Supreme Court (California v. Greenwood) held in 1988 that there is no common law expectation of privacy for discarded materials, varying local ordinances, as well as trespassing laws for dumpsters on stores’ property, often render diving illegal. Moreover, the stores have an interest in preventing an activity that could lead to injury on their property.

“Quite frankly, you can go to jail for it,” says Lawless. “And there’s a reason for that. We can’t protect what happens to the food after it goes to the dumpster. People can get sick, people can die from salmonella poisoning. We don’t support it. The things we actually put in the dumpster, we expect to make it to the landfill.”

The vehemence of this opposition became evident during the group’s first official dive. Seven group members had assembled at Trader Joe’s in Silver Spring on a frigid, windy night in January just after closing time.

There were newcomers, like Morris. And there were seasoned veterans, like Molley Kaiyoorawongs, who was eager to get inside the dumpster, where, she said, “it’ll probably be warmer.”

Two Trader Joe’s employees wheeled out carts full of bread and pastries. According to several of the group’s members, the store does so once a week so that charitable organizations can collect them. The group took what they needed, leaving the rest, and huddled in their cars to wait for the employees to return to the store. Only then would it be safe to risk a peek inside the dumpster, where, it was suspected, the real goods were.

Biaou returned with a full report — inside the dumpster were apples, potatoes and bananas. She was apprehensive about rescuing them (the employees were out of sight but still within earshot), but that much produce is a rare find.

Within seconds, Kaiyoorawongs was inside the dumpster, having crawled in through a side door. She pushed up, and the roof flaps flopped open, thudding against the dumpster’s sides. An assembly line was formed as the produce was passed from within dumpster, out the side door and into bags.

A curt voice silenced the giggles as a store employee strode toward the group.

“Get out. You can’t do that, guys. Get out. Bye. Goodnight.”

The group hurried back to their cars (after managing to salvage the produce they had already bagged).

“Have you ever gotten kicked out before?” Kaiyoorawongs asked Biaou.

“No,” Biaou said, laughing. “I think we might have to start going later.”

She paused.

“There’s still more potatoes in there. It’s hurting me.”

The group meets at 12:30 a.m. now. Throughout the winter, there were no more encounters with store employees. The night was theirs. In the winter, the drivers of salt trucks barely paid them a passing glance. The dumpsters were abloom with flowers after Valentine’s Day, and, in February, as a Wednesday turned into Thursday, the group saw a 20-minute snow shower that those who did their shopping during operating hours missed. As the flakes floated down around Whole Foods, they gathered bottles of olive oil while piped music at the loading dock played Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumper”: I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.

Once the group grows in numbers, experience and confidence, “less sneaking around” at night will be necessary, says Madeline Nelson, 54, (the Freegan organizer Biaou met in New York). Nelson has been a Freegan for five years, and it was with her group that Biaou went on her first trash tour.

In New York, Freegans roam from store to store with confidence. They have made it a tradition to stop half way through their tours to build a display of all their finds — and to allow the group’s organizers to present a “cradle to grave” story about a particular item, from its origin to what would have happened had it not been salvaged, Nelson says.

Sometimes, Nelson says, her group encounters store employees “who yell at dumpster divers and tell them to go away.” In those situations, the group’s tactic is to explain why they’re there, show them what the group has found and “invite them to take a look and speculate why it’s being thrown away because it looks perfect,” says Nelson.

“It leads to interesting conversations,” Nelson says. “If they are adamant, we will go away. We’re not into creating a fight, but we do talk to them, and we don’t wait and go after dark and make it a secret.”

Being a Freegan evolved from something Nelson decided to try five years ago, to an “interesting political activity,” to a commitment to civil disobedience that has changed the way she lives. A year after she began going on trash tours, she quit her job as a director of communication for Barnes and Noble. She now works when she needs to and spends the rest of her time doing volunteer work.

“I went, ‘Oh my God, I don’t need all this money,’ ” she says.

The list of things Nelson found she did not need continued to grow: new clothes, new electronics, store-bought books — and “retail therapy” in general.

“To break out of that, you have to think of other things that make you happy,” Nelson says. “It is amazing how little you can live on if you can break out of that and how much freedom it gives you.”

Quitting her day job might not be in Biaou’s future. And, although what she does at night now provides much of what she and her siblings eat, she is careful about explaining it to her friends. Her friends have been eating, sometimes unwittingly, some of her finds for months now. If they knew where the food came from, Biaou suspects, they might be skeptical. When they do ask about the origin of her freebies, she tells them, “This is the stuff a certain store didn’t sell, so I took it and there’s some more if you want some. Be my guest.” But people rarely ask questions when offered free veggies.

The suggestion that she lives a double life makes her laugh.

“Sometimes I do feel like I’m living a double life,” she says. “But I’m trying to bring my friends to the idea that this is what I do, and you guys should look into it.”

For another of the group’s members, Jeff Labow, 22, where he does his shopping is no secret. He estimates he started diving with friends when he was 16 or 17. Sometimes, he prepares the food he finds and hands it out to the homeless. Activism is something he wears on his sleeve — his jacket is covered with sewn-on badges representing charitable and environmental organizations.

“It’s not really a double life for me,” he says. “I just enjoy doing it. People know I do it. They’re cool with it. Even my dad, who’s fairly conservative, he’ll sit back and he’ll be eating dumpster pie, dumpster cake, bread and be like, ‘Yeah, America is kind of wasteful.’ ”

When Labow cut his finger on some glass during a recent dive, he shrugged off the other group members’ gasps of concern — after all, he had a bandana to bind the cut with. Ask him about his past adventures, and he’ll recount them with the casualness of finding a good sale on tomatoes at the grocery store, mixed with a hint of pride.

“It’s a lot of fun because you can go to different cities, find different cool places,” Labow says. “In Chicago, there was a dumpster just full of cake. So after [we drank] 32 ounces of root beer [bought nearby], we decided to go to the cake dumpster and, just hand over fist, we were just eating cake.”

This sense of fun is evident during most of the group’s dives. Initial apprehension gives way to elation as bags are ripped open and their contents triumphantly announced and passed around. Finding another member’s favorites is as satisfying as finding your own.

And yet the rules they are breaking, so easily forgotten, can inevitably make a dissonant reappearance.

During a dive in mid-April, the group had just finished cleaning up the area around the dumpster —a ritual for the group, who never leaves a mess behind. They were hauling their bags back to their cars, parked behind the Trader Joe’s in Rockville, Md., when the jarring rattle of someone raising the metal receiving dock door caused them to freeze. The light from inside illuminated the area around the dumpster.

“Get out.”

The voice of this employee, unlike that of the one they encountered on their first dive, was more than annoyed.

“Drop it,” he shouted, referring to the night’s haul. “Drop it and get out of here now.”

The group kept walking, picking up speed, but not running.

“It’s OK,” said Labow calmly. “We’re not leaving a mess. We’re just going to take some of this trash.”

“Drop it,” he repeated, “or I’m calling the police.”

The group continued toward their cars. The employee rushed back inside, presumably to make good on his warning. Never quite breaking into a run, the group held onto their bags, loaded them into their cars, exchanged quick goodbyes and drove off. They all got home safely, sans police chase.

Just hours before the incident, Biaou and Labow were at a coffee shop talking about what they do — and society’s apparent discomfort with them doing it.

“But looking back you can see the Depression era, people were dumpster diving then, looking through trash and reusing stuff and fixing stuff when something was broken,” said Labow. “They didn’t say, ‘Oh, just throw it away and get a new one.’ ”

Both have become adept reviving what others might deem waste. Stale bread can still be used to make stuffing or bread pudding, for example. And not being able to predict which vegetables they will find has inspired creativity.

Biaou, for example, has made a ratatouille, a French vegetable dish. She bought a slow cooker so that she can transform any combination of vegetables she finds into soups and stews —  if they are slightly blemished, the taste doesn’t suffer one bit, even though the blemished vegetables are the ones that are banished from store shelves.

“Because you have one little birthmark on your face, you’re pushed to the side, and the people who are quote-unquote ‘perfect,’ which I think is just a ridiculous term, are the ones who are seen in society,” she said. “When I started the whole Freeganism thing, I realized we all do it, but I realized there’s no sense to it.”

One of Labow’s favorite culinary creations is a mushroom and spinach bread pudding. He is also a fan of Trader Joe’s Texas toast, especially when used to make peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

Yet one of his most memorable finds wasn’t edible.

“One night, maybe a year ago, I thought, ‘Hey there’s a library nearby, maybe they throw away books,” he said. “Maybe.’ ”

It was unlikely, he thought. Libraries probably kept books until they were falling apart.

“But I flip open the lid, and good books, good books, good books,” he said. “I flip open another lid. More good books. And by the end of it, there were so many books that I wanted to take but I couldn’t take.”

Since then, he has found McCormick’s Spices of the World Cookbook, a dictionary, religious books, a directory of local celebrities’ home addresses and, right next to each other, Bill and Hilary Clinton’s books.

Such are the rewards for those willing to bend the rules.

I think one of the greatest things to do is explore,” said Labow. “Explore your neighborhood, a trash can, a dumpster.”

He lowered his voice to deliver the famous line:

“Because life’s like a box of chocolates.”

Biaou chimed in.

“You never know what you’re gonna get.”