Last night I was channel surfing when I came across the latest episode of Oprah, and something caught my eye...something that exposed me to a side of frugality I wasn't really aware of until I saw this show. Now, as a forty-something-year-old man, I'm not a regular viewer of Oprah, but I was intrigued.

The show was about something I can only describe as "extreme frugality": freegans, or freeganism. Freegans are people who believe that Americans, while being the biggest consumers on the planet, are also the most wasteful. Each year, billions of dollars worth of food is discarded into the trash, even if it hasn't yet hit its "sell by" date. Freegans say that's a terrible waste of our food and resources, and they are there to make use of it.

That's right, Freegans regularly "dumpster dive" to get the majority of their food, home furnishing and clothing. At first, I was extremely repulsed by the thought of eating food that came from the trash. However, I was also surprised at some of the things the Freegans found: unopened canned goods, sealed vegetables, bread, lunch meat, seafood -- all dug out of the trash to become some Freegan's free meal. One Freegan had not purchased new clothing in three years because she regularly found designer duds discarded in the trash.

A group of Freegans in New York even sponsored a sort of dumpster-diving tour of the city. They scrounged through trash bins and dumpsters and found all sorts of food they said was perfectly fine and edible. They found an entire 30-gallon bag of bagels in front of a bakery, destined to become part of some Freegan's frugal breakfast. While I truly believe New York bagels are the best in the world, I'm not brave enough to eat baked goods pulled from the trash.
You might think from my description of Freegans that they are trash-eating, dreadlocked, homeless hippies who refuse to work for a living and would rather live off the cast-offs of others, but you would be wrong. Many of the Freegans were people who worked as engineers, doctors or some other lucrative position. They said it wasn't about saving the money they would otherwise spend on food. It was about preventing edible food from hitting the landfill and recovering other perfectly useful items that would otherwise be wasted.

There is no doubt there is a lot of waste in the U.S. I furnished one of my son's bedrooms with a futon mattress that I found sitting on a curb. There was nothing wrong with it. The previous owner was moving and just trying to get rid of it. I'm afraid I have to draw the line at food when it comes to my dumpster-diving.

If more people adopted the frugal mantra of "buy it for less, make it last longer, use it more", there would be a lot less waste in the U.S....but the Freegans would also have to start paying for a meal.

Last year, Raina Kelley, using the moniker Freegan Girl, blogged about her experiment to live as a Freegan for 30 days. It looks like she nearly went insane by Day 30. Apparently, you can't find a good cheeseburger in the dumpster. There is also a web site where you can find more info about Freegans, but the folks who run the site seem a bit more anti-social than the merry trash-pickers I saw on Oprah.

Savvy Frugality Tip: Some things, like cheeseburgers, are worth paying for.

4 comments

  1. Mrs Nespy // February 29, 2008 at 2:15 PM  

    I have also seen something about people who live like that. I can't imagine. I agree that a lot of what I saw appeared to be perfectly edible, but there is no way I could get over the fact that it was trash to be able to eat it. And I certainly wouldn't feed it to my family! And I have a feeling that they have to see a lot of bad stuff before they find something worth eating.

  2. SavvyFrugality // February 29, 2008 at 5:08 PM  

    They also made no mention of the rat problem in New York, which has something like two rats for every person that lives in Manhatten. I'm sure the canned goods are immune to the rats, but bagels and meats? They can't convince me it's not somehow contaminated by...something.

  3. A // March 19, 2008 at 5:05 PM  

    I think you might have missed a little part about the whole "arrangement" between freegans and retailers/ restaurants. A lot of restaurants and food service places do not want their left over food to go to the land fill, but various things such as health codes, "optimal freshness", and shelf space force them to do something with it. Much of the food freegans take are put out in separate, clean bags with a little wink and nod. Shop owners want there food to be eaten and enjoyed and once the point where it can be profitable has passed, they are willing to "give" it away. Here where I live we have a chain of bakeries called Panera Bread, every night they give the days left over baked goods to local non-profits but if you are there at close, you might be offered some also. I drive by my counties land fill every day on my way home and appreciate anything and everything people are doing to keep that mountain from growing faster.

  4. Frugal Wench // June 2, 2008 at 3:27 PM  

    I'm sort of on the fence when it comes to free stuff. If it's something that's been wrapped in plastic, and can be cooked, I'm pretty much o.k. with it, but I draw the line there. I don't know if I'd do bread, unless that 30 gallon bag was awfully thick, and I saw them throw it out. Digging it out of a pile of garbage would be a little too messy for me. Germs on the bag transfer to your hands which transfer to the bread. Naw, too much risk.

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