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Bin there, ate that

A growing subculture of people, Freegans live off consumer waste, often creating gourmet meals out of garbage.

Image Credit:Carolyn Cole/The Washington Post
Deirdre Rennert, a Freegan, looks for edibles during a trash tour in New York City. Freeganism sprang from the environmental justice and anti-globalisation movements of the 1980s and has a growing following.
Weekend Review

For lunch in her modest apartment, Madeline Nelson tossed a salad made with shaved carrots and lettuce she dug out from a Whole Foods' garbage bin. She flavoured the dressing with miso powder she found in a garbage bag on a kerb in Chinatown. She baked bread made with yeast plucked from the garbage of a Middle Eastern grocery store.

Nelson is a former corporate executive who can afford to dine at upscale restaurants. But she prefers turning garbage into gourmet meals without spending a cent.

Nelson, 51, once earned a six-figure income as director of communications at Barnes and Noble. Tired of representing a multimillion-dollar company, she quit in 2005 and became a "freegan" — the word combining "vegan" and "free" — a growing subculture of people who have reduced their spending habits and live off consumer waste.

Though many of its pioneers are vegans — people who neither eat nor use any animal-based products — the concept has caught on with Nelson and other meat-eaters who do not want to depend on businesses that they believe waste resources, harm the environment or allow unfair labour practices. "We are doing something that is really socially unacceptable," Nelson said. "Not everyone is going to do it, but we hope it leads people to push their own limits and quit spending."

Cost cutting

Nelson used to spend more than $100,000 a year for her food, clothes, books, transportation and a mortgage on a two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village. Now, she lives off savings, volunteers instead of working and forages for groceries.

She sold her apartment and bought a one-bedroom flat in Brooklyn, about an hour from Manhattan by cycle. Her annual expenditures now total about $25,000.

"I used to have 40 work blouses," said Nelson, sipping hot tea with mint leaves and stevia, a sweet plant she picked from a community garden. She shook her head in shame. "Forty tops, just for work."

Though recycling clothes and furniture does not strike most people as unusual, combing through heaps of trash for food can be unthinkable to many.

One night, recently, Nelson and fellow freegan Adam Weissman led a trash tour through New York for about 40 experienced and first-time diggers, including college students, a high school teacher, a taxi driver and a former investment banker.

An employee at D'Agostino's supermarket in Midtown Manhattan had carried out the garbage minutes earlier. The clear plastic bags lining the gum-stained sidewalk bulged with bruised peaches, discoloured eggplants, day-old poppy seed bagels and imitation crabmeat.

Careful not to rip the bags and risk angering store managers by creating a mess, some unknotted the ties and sifted through the garbage with bare hands. Two women who worked next door at a nail salon came outside and stared. A few first-time tour-takers stood away from the group, looking self-conscious.

"We encourage people who have never opened a bag before to try it," Nelson told the group. "Go ahead."

A few began filling backpacks and plastic bags with food that looked fresh enough to eat — mere scraps in the estimated 50 million pounds of food that New York throws away each year, including at least 20 million pounds that go to the poor.

D'Agostino's, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods — freegans' most popular garbage bin diving sites — donate edible food to agencies that prepare it for the poor, according to their spokespersons. But freegans and food experts say a large amount of edible food still gets thrown away. Smaller businesses don't always have agreements with food banks, they say, or they have not taken time to donate.

Supermarket officials say food found in their trash should not be eaten. "Food items are disposed of because they are inedible or not otherwise safe to donate," said Ashley Hawkins, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods.

The store's guidelines about what is edible, Weissman said, might be unrealistic, adding that at home, people would not throw away a banana with brown spots.

Since Nelson turned to freeganism, she has learned how much she can live without. She still buys toilet paper and food for her two cats. She has not bought clothes in three years, nor set foot in a supermarket to purchase eggs, vegetables, fruit, bread or coffee.

She used to love browsing department stores or buying new books or shoes. Now she finds satisfaction recovering 20 rosemary-seasoned roasted chickens from a garbage receptacle outside the Gourmet Garage or sharing conversation over a lunch made from garbage. She has never been happier.