It’s 11 pm on a cool Sunday night and I am in the last place I ever thought I’d end up. I’m rummaging through a Tesco dumpster for food. Maybe you’re wondering what circumstances surround this seemingly infelicitous predicament. Let me assure you that I wasn’t intoxicated nor was I reaping the fruit of impoverishment. Quite the opposite actually. I am a young, healthy university student living on a scholarship stipend that is also quite healthy. The same can be said of my accompanying mate who is a middle-class left-winger studying politics.
Perhaps even more surprising is what we find in the dumpster…radishes! Perfectly red, firm radishes completely sealed in plastic to be exact. That’s not all, we find ready meals by the box, bread and bagels, cartons of milk, and apples all in this refrigerator of a dumpster. That night I took in a week’s haul of sustenance without paying 1 pence to the world’s second-ranked retail supermarket. You see I had just played a part in Karl Marx’s midnight dream. That night I was a freegan.
So here’s what we know: food waste continues to be a blight of the UK to the tune of 15 billion tonnes annually, exploitation of immigrant labor sustains US agriculture, and we have a global food system designed to cause overconsumption through selling as much food possible for the most profit (WRAP 2016). With such a broad set of interconnected issues, many incensed minds have found it impossible to make ethically neutral purchases and have chosen to forego the entire food system. One freegan website states “After years of trying to boycott products from unethical corporations…we came to realize that the problem isn’t just a few bad corporations but the entire system itself”.
Your spellcheck will scold you with a red underline if you dare to type this term so let me explain what freeganism is. The name comes from the words “free” and “vegan”. It embodies the ideas of abstinence from consuming unethically produced goods and that the only way to do so is to avoid consumerism as much as possible. In practice, it’s reclaiming waste or unused items. This can range from furniture to clothing to housing or, most importantly, FOOD. Just as important as the practice are the range of ideologies that underpin it because—let’s be honest—without a philosophical underpinning, freeloading is just well…freeloading. People employ freeganism as a part of anti-capitalist lifestyles, to cut expenses, or to mitigate food waste.
Freeganism’s utility is obvious but I wanted to know how does one practically go about taking food out of bins while making sure the food is safe and meeting one’s nutritional needs. I also wanted to know the psychological journey that precedes becoming comfortable with doing so. I had the opportunity to explore these questions with a couple of practicing freegans at the University of Sheffield and even through experiencing a bin-dive.
Finding reasonable confidence in food’s safety from bins is much more straightforward than I imagined. On my bin-dive it was mostly a matter of checking the ‘sell by’ dates and examining the food for any signs of decay. Most of the food was was still sealed in plastic packaging and still very chilled from the cold dumpster. Nearly all of the produce was still firm and of good color. Paul VanLandingham of the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University notes that ‘sell by’ dates indicate quality, not whether an item is safe. Food will still be edible for a period after the ‘sell by’ date. Plus, with the abundance of food we found, it’s hard to imagine not finding plenty of alternatives to replace any foods that are suspect. In terms of meeting nutritional needs, there is a degree of uncertainty as to what will be in the bins and it certainly may not be conducive to certain restrictive diets. However, if one has access to bins from a number of large supermarkets then the odds of meeting one’s preferences increase. The Independent has even reported of gluten-free freegans in London.
Interviews (responses summarized in my words for space conservation)
As Chris Godfray notes, the most contentious food-waste initiatives are those aimed at curbing consumerism. I asked my interviewees how they removed themselves from consumerism and it seems that it was a gradual process of making personal diet choices that evolved into a consciousness of the wider adverse effects of the food system. Finding empowerment in waste reduction has had a crystallization effect; they feel more conscious of social issues and empowered to address them. Micheal, a third-year politics student, noted that “there’s something empowering about opening a bin and seeing a load of perfectly good food in it. You feel affirmed that you are doing a social good [by reclaiming it].”
I appreciate that freeganism addresses food-waste comprehensively beyond the consumer level. However, I found it difficult to accept that freeganism fights the very system that it depends upon. The goods that are reclaimed for free were produced by someone’s resources and labor via capitalism so can it actually be considered free and who are we actually undermining? Is it the small-holder farmer or laborer that has no other source of economic support?
Chris, a second-year politics and philosophy student, provided solace that helped reconcile this inconsistency in stating that freeganism isn’t a solution to food-waste or capitalism. It’s more of a mindset or, at least, one part of a range of components used to imagine an alternative system. The foundation of civil resistance is to first to understand how to not be governed under the current system. Freeganism can be seen as the first step to dismantling the current system to create space for a more just system for producers and consumers. Indeed there seems to be evidence of a positive shift, as this year Morrison’s announced that it will be the first supermarket to donate all of its food-waste to charity (Telegraph 2015). Micheal also noted that “allowing the environmental resources used to produce meat and vegetables to go to waste would be a much bigger crime”.