Reading time: 9min.

by Melchi Anyinsah-Bondzie

Freegans – and they say there’s no such thing as a free lunch

Nothing is faster than the society we live in. We work, we sleep, we eat, throw it away, we buy and then we do it all over again – it just doesn’t stop. The real question is, in all of our self-obsessed consumerist goodness, have we ever stopped to actually think about how much we waste. I’m pretty sure we’re all guilty of it; even down to the ordering a pizza but not being able to finish it so we throw it away… Well guess what? As full as you were, it’s just as bad for the environment as it is for your bank balance. On average we waste seven million tonnes of food and drink in the UK costing us an extra £12.5 billion a year, something that could easily be avoided by just cooking what you need or ordering less. Simples.

I say simple, but we all know the world is going to keep on spinning its vicious cycle. In a world that demands more, there are a group of people who will gladly ‘reclaim’ your waste for you – no they are not dirty scroungers who do nothing all day – meet the Freegans. You might have heard the name once or twice in passing, but I’ll break it down in layman terms. Freeganism is an ethical boycott system of all that’s corporate, environmentally damaging and consumerist; for the typical Freegan it’s all about practical and smart living and there are various ways they do this. This is perfectly put into a simple quote from the Freegans themselves – “As workers and potential consumers, we view participation in this economy as a form of complicity in practices like sweatshop labour, rainforest destruction, and factory farming. Freegans believe in living ethical, free, and happy lives centred around community and the notion that a healthy society must function on interdependence.”

The first, and most recognisable, of these is waste reclamation. Like me, you might just be a fan of the odd Channel 4 lifestyle documentary and might have come across ‘dumpster diving’. It’s a practice where people scout the waste bins of local food stores and huge supermarket chains for food that is actually still edible. This isn’t just limited to food; office supplies, furniture, artwork, toys, appliances and many others are things that a Freegan can get their hands on – which to many people might sound trampy and hobo-ish, but what we need to remember is a lot of this reclaimed food is still in its original packaging and within sell-by-date, and a lot of the appliances we throw away is perfectly useable and in working order, we just happened to get the upgraded product.

To me, this practice actually makes sense – so of course, being the person I am – I had to get involved. I took to the glorious internet in search of some Freegans who would be happy in letting me tag along and venture into some good old dumpster diving. Let me just begin by saying that finding Freegans is not as easy as you’d think… I’ve tried friends of friends, forums, I even found myself hanging around bins are store close hours (don’t ask, but it didn’t work and I ended up with banana peel on my backside with an hour journey ahead of me).

The thought of Freeganism isn’t as foreign as you’d think, there are many of us who don’t mind taking something for free as long as it’s still good. Now, I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this – so I’ll keep the store name out of my lips. I used to work in the foodhall of a very famous department store, and the amount of food that would be thrown away after each day was nothing short of elephantine. Sandwiches, cookies, whole chickens, sushi – name it, it was there being thrown away. Perfectly good food with a few good days of life left in them. It was never really allowed, but we used to sneak meals after the working day had finished and at least try to take some food out of the store (if you could get past the security men) and either take it home for meals or give it to the few dozen homeless people scattered around the area. Needless to say, store managers caught on and promptly ordered the bins to be collected and taken down to refuse – which was always locked and kept underground – no-one could get in or out.

Freeganism doesn’t come without its fair share of woes. The practice of ‘dumpster diving’ is often met with frowns and instant judgement like it’s a bad thing. I won’t lie, when I first thought about it – the thought did kind of gross me out; but if something is still okay to use, wouldn’t you still use it? Personally, it’s a harmless thing to do – but not everyone shares that sentiment. Last year the Police arrested three men for ‘burglary’ after they were found with £33 of mushrooms, cheese and tomatoes from Iceland. Not only where they arrested for burglary, they were also charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act which was introduced to deal with beggars. With the intervention of the Iceland store manager and another judge, the men were released without further enquiry. With that being said it sparked a debate into the ever growing rise of waste being generated by the UK’s largest supermarket chains, prompting Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose to publish regular waste reports.

I spoke with Emma Chambers who is a self-proclaimed Freegan who lives in Croydon. She told me about the first time she ever went through the bins at her local Asda, she mentioned feelings of being scared and the fact that she got caught – “it was mortifying. I was only a novice, and I completely didn’t do my research – never ever go to a 24 hour store. You’re only asking for unnecessary trouble. Needless to say they let me go. I don’t go there anymore ha!” I was in for a right treat.

Now that we’ve got all the boring meaningful stuff out the way, I’m assuming you want to know all about my escapades in the bins…Low and behold, I couldn’t get any Freegans to take me – I heard the word “liability” once or twice… So I picked up my sister and told her to get her best ‘re-use’ shopping bag, we were going for some groceries. She was mad when she found herself faced with three wheelie bins.

We’re pretty lucky to be round the corner from a huge supermarket – so you can only imagine what we were going to find. Now, we didn’t want to be too long, so grabbed what we could find. You’d be surprised – it’s pretty clean for a bin. We found loaves of bread, a 6-pack of eggs (which were more or less unharmed); we did find a stack of meat which were around 3 days from expiry – we thought why not, we’ll cook it at an extra high temperature. We also found bags of salad and some vegetables, including some potatoes (in a bag of course) – literally a whole meal. I think we left with around £30-£40 worth of waste, and there was a lot of it, so you could imagine how much it was altogether. With our goods, we did what any Freegan would do and made a good old hearty meal from our findings. Sunday lunch consisted of meat casserole, veg and mash and it tasted no different. I think my parents were a little mad when I told them where I got the food from… Then I explained what it was all in aid of, I think that helped ease the blow a little bit.

Although brief, my experience at the bins did make me think if it was even worth all the trouble. I’d do anything to save a penny, I’m pretty sure we all want to – I’m just not sure if this is the way forward. I 100% get it though. I might do it again though, just for the thrill of it.

I’m really not saying that we should all start foraging through bins anytime soon, but the Freegans are onto something and we can learn something from them. I honestly believe there needs to be another reform in how we process waste; recycling for packaging and food recycling is currently going well, but it should be encouraged more. Thought also needs to be taken into the packaging that’s used, more recyclable packaging means less waste… There’s only so much I can do as a lowly journalist, but essentially – it all starts from home, and little by little. Just think.