But Do Freegans Taste Better?

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The New York Times delves into the weird world of freegans, anti-consumerists who live off of others' trash "in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet." There's something obviously weird about an anti-market lifestyle that depends on rampant consumerism and accelerated obsolescence for its existence. (The article attributes the movement's success in New York City to the "quantity and quality" of city trash.) Still. I'm a freegan fan–eccentrics, even somewhat parasitical ones, are luxuries wealthy and productive societies can afford. And this is interesting:

Environmentalism, Mr. Torres said, "is becoming this issue of, consume the right set of green goods and you're green," regardless of how much in the way of natural resources those goods require to manufacture and distribute.

"If you ask the average person what can you do to reduce global warming, they'd say buy a Prius," he added.

I touched on in this in an article on Fair Trade coffee a while back. Almost any ideology–anticonsumerist or otherwise–can be signaled through brand selection. The lure of the boycott is fading; concerned (though not always well informed) First Worlders will instead reach for the right kind of coffee or produce. Freeganism seems to be as much a rejection of socially conscious consumerism and corporate social responsibility as it is a response to actual materialism.

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  1. ‘scuse me while I pick up the remains of my ‘sploded brains off the carpet.

  2. Bums with a ‘tude.

  3. If enough stuff gets thrown out, beggers CAN be choosers.

  4. Some people are just cheap.

  5. They seem more commensals than parasitic, actually; they don’t hurt the rich people whose trash they pick up.

  6. Subsistence urban scavenging in Lagos or Calcutta is ingenious small-scale bootstrap capitalism. Subsitence urban scavenging in New York or Berlin is anti-market weirdness. Got it.

  7. It’d be refreshing to see one of these guys just come out and say, “Work sucks and I figured out a way around it” without all the anti-capitalist rhetoric.

    I could respect that.

  8. Almost any ideology–anticonsumerist or otherwise–can be signaled through brand selection.

    That’s because most ideologies are poses (or, at least, most ideology subscribers are posers). You join the clique and have to signal your membership. Gang colors.

  9. I agree with Fluffy. These people may talk about ideology, but I suspect they have a lot in common, both in terms of personality traits and interests, with the people who are obsessed with air fares and always know the best deal. (They’re useful people to know, but I simply can’t bring myself to pay that kind of attention to it.)

    And, honestly, given some of the cool shit the people in that article found, it doesn’t seem like the worst hobby to have. The problem, though, is that you have to know when and where to look, and have a lot of patience and tolerance for digging through trash, in order to find the good stuff. Basically, you have to have the personality of a devoted bargain hunter, who will rise at 5 am and drive 2 hours to be in line when a discount outlet store opens its doors for a sale. The “Freegans” may sneer at the people in line for that sale, but under slightly different circumstances they probably would have wound up in line, and the people in that line could have wound up as dumpster divers.

    It sounds more like a hobby dressed up in ideological clothes. And while the ideological clothes sound rather Marxist, it somehow seems appropriate that afficionados of discarded stuff would appreciate a discredited ideology.

    Hey, somebody’s gotta recycle it! ­čÖé

  10. “There’s something obviously weird about an anti-market lifestyle that depends on rampant consumerism and accelerated obsolescence for its existence.”

    Meh. How many magazines would Reason sell if there wasn’t a big federal government doing lthings for you to criticize?

    You depend on a remarkably similar process for your dinner, Kerry.

  11. Almost any ideology–anticonsumerist or otherwise–can be signaled through brand selection.

    M16 vs. AK?

    1911 vs. Glock?

    Coke vs. Pepsi?

  12. BTW, if the Freegans prefer to dress their hobby up in discarded ideological clothes, maybe we could get them to adopt small government as their ideology? That one got discarded a long time ago!

  13. Freegans, without understanding it, are demonstrating an important feature of laissez-faire capitalism: Independant operators are free to locate and appropriate unclaimed or discarded resources, finding or creating value where previously none was perceived.

    Garbage today is what a tar pit was 200 years ago.

  14. That’s a terrible analogy, Joe. More analogous would be if Reason depended on grants from the Fed Gov’t to survive.

  15. Almost any ideology–anticonsumerist or otherwise–can be signaled through brand selection.

    M16 vs. AK?

    1911 vs. Glock?

    What ideology do I hold if I have a AR15, an AK, a 1911, and a Glock?

  16. Oh, yeah. They come off all liberal and progressive and what, like this Madeline Nelson, who said, “Freegans would argue that the capitalist system is not sustainable. You’re exploiting resources.” But did any one of these freegans ever stop to think that for every dumpster they dive in search of food, another raccoon goes hungry? Speciesist bastards.

  17. I have to agree with thoreau here. I could easily imagine my sister-in-law (brother’s wife), who is an avid bargain hunter, scavenging through dumpsters in an effort to find free used stuff.

  18. I like the idea of scavenging, both for the price and esp. for not wasting serviceable things, but my inner ten-year-old would be taunting, “Trash-picker!” (Dry, non-smelly rubbish is OK, I guess.) And then there’s this:

    She longs for a springform pan in which to make cheesecakes, but is waiting for one to come up on Freecycle.

    How passive and martyred can one get? Sometimes if you want something specific, you just have to shell out (and this would be, what? all of $10 at a Bowery restaurant supply store?). Or she could post a “seeking free –” ad somewhere. Better than waiting to be blessed by the trash gods.

  19. Don’t put down freeganism. This is how I got a futon, dining room set, coffepot, and scabies.

  20. How many magazines would Reason sell if there wasn’t a big federal government doing things for you to criticize?

    About 35,000 or 7,000 less than usual.

    Am I close?

  21. I find it amusing that even in an article about people who live on garbage, the people quoted by the Times are people who work or have worked at law firms, investment banks, etc.

  22. There are people who spend enormous amounts of time (and money) looking for shipwrecks to salvage/scavenge. This only differs in degree not substance.

  23. If you can’t get enough freegan fun, check out this article from the New York Press from over a year ago:

    http://www.nypress.com/19/24/news&columns/feature.cfm

  24. sounds suspiciously like sloppy seconds. Dibs on Paris.

  25. Jason C,

    “That’s a terrible analogy, Joe. More analogous would be if Reason depended on grants from the Fed Gov’t to survive.”

    No, because the Freegans neither depend on the active support of the businesses they feed from, nor do they cost them anything.

    The analogy is perfect – in both cases, the critics scrape out a living off the output of their target, while the target isn’t taking any overt acts to support them, just going about its business.

  26. There are people who spend enormous amounts of time (and money) looking for shipwrecks to salvage/scavenge. This only differs in degree not substance.

    Yep. I’ll bet that some of these dumpster divers could have just as easily become scavengers of some other sort, and they probably would have espoused some other ideology.

    If you let a laptop lying out, a Freegan would probably discover that a data entry clerk made a mistake on Expedia, and a seat on a 12:03 am flight to Chicago is going for $4.25 instead of $425.

    Now, here’s the real question: Would a Freegan drag his balls over broken glass to follow a dump truck that’s carrying away a used futon?

  27. Think about it…the freegans are basically outsourcing their financial transactions. Everything they produce or consume is free, but that doesn’t mean an exchange of capital never occurred. They just weren’t directly involved in it.

  28. Joe-
    If the fed gov’t suddenly became the perfect model of competence, Reason still has plenty of things to write about (which they do). Freegan’s depend on us throwing valuable items away. If we stopped doing that, no more freegans. That’s all I’m saying.

  29. I wonder how this publicity will affect freegans and their dumpster-diving ways… if the NYTimes article inspires more people to join their ranks, will there be greater competition for the discarded goods, and thus a less social, communal, atmosphere at the dives? Will people who read the article but who do not become freegans be less likely to throw things away, suddenly realizing how valuable these things are? Or will they, maliciously, make sure to smash their TVs and ipods before discarding them?

  30. Here in the sort-of South, people have picked through everyone else’s curb trash for years. These people, who are desperate for an ideology, have just made it one. Bully for them, but yawn.

    It sounds like just another trend story. I’ve always though that the trend story should have a certain threshold it should have to cross, say one tenth of one percent of the population. If 300,000 people aren’t doing it, it’s not a trend… (Here’s a fun game, what’s the threshold for a fad?)

  31. I’ve done my share of dumpster diving, and I certainly don’t consider myself an anti-capitalist or eco-warrior. It’s just that you can find a lot of perfectly good stuff. The ideological labeling that people apply to why they do this is interesting. Just a couple of days ago I actually had an email exchange with a dude who had posted on Craigslist looking for a dumpster diving ‘mentor’. Incidently, he was lamenting a bit that there seemed to be a scrounging ‘hierarchy’ and that divers would be secretive about their favorite sites. Go figure!

    It reminds me of the novel King Rat: Corporal King is, certainly, an advocate of the free market– he survives, and in fact gets his status, from trading with the Japanese camp guards. But after he eats he doesn’t mind if his fellow prisoners scrounge his eggshells or reuse his coffee grounds. As it says, “The King does not support waste.”

  32. Meh. How many magazines would Reason sell if there wasn’t a big federal government doing lthings for you to criticize?

    You depend on a remarkably similar process for your dinner, Kerry.

    No, it would sell just fine. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to run out of people in groups trying to control others’ behavior any time soon, regardless of the size of any particular level of gov’t.

  33. Freegan’s depend on us throwing valuable items away. If we stopped doing that, no more freegans.

    Different people value different things differently. One mans trash… This is way too obvious. The issue is freegans trying to pass this behaviour as some sort of moral or political attitude. I thinks most Reasonoids would say something like “Doesn’t pass the smell test.”

  34. I think Joe is just pointing out that normative writings go away when their policy aims are fulfilled. This is not really that controversial.

    There is no magazine out there devoted to, say, convincing people to use toilet paper instead of a communal sponge on the end of a stick – for the simple reason that there’s no need for anyone to argue that particular point right now.

    So, yes, Reason in that sense requires statism to exist, because if we lived in a libertarian utopia no one would bother to write arguments advocating political changes to bring about a libertarian utopia.

  35. Mitch asks, “If the NYTimes article inspires more people to join their ranks, will there be greater competition for the discarded goods, and thus a less social, communal, atmosphere at the dives?”

    Oh yes. The line between solidarity and hatred is razor-thin.

    The atmosphere at yard sales and library book sales completely changed when people discovered they could re-sell crap on EBay.

  36. I have no problem with dumpster-diving. I just wouldn’t do it because, well, it involves climbing into a dumpster. Ick.

  37. I guess I don’t agree that Reason requires statism to exist. “Free Minds, Free Markets” covers a lot of territory.

  38. This isn’t about Reason’s existance.

    It’s about the fact that Reason, like the Freegans, makes a living off of the operations of those they criticize.

  39. Almost any ideology–anticonsumerist or otherwise–can be signaled through brand selection. The lure of the boycott is fading; concerned (though not always well informed) First Worlders will instead reach for the right kind of coffee or produce.

    It’s odd to me that libertarians would scoff at this behavior. I should think you’d be thrilled. Isn’t this the way that market advocates think people should display their social values? Am I to conclude that you’d prefer people exhibit their values through the exercise of government power, or that you don’t believe people should have social values at all? Color me confused…

  40. I don’t quite see the moral significance of dumpster diving vs. going to Goodwill and paying quite reasonable prices for something used. In both cases the stuff gets recycled.

    Tons of gaijin and poor Japanese do “dumpster diving” in Japan–the evening before the “sodai-gomi” day (Big Garbage Day) it was quite standard for people to wander around the neighborhood looking to see what had been put out. A neighborhood swap meet, but less organized. There was in fact an article in the Japan Times about an English teacher (profession notoriously badly paid in Japan unless you’re certified for ESL) who had managed to completely furnish his apartment through careful scavenging. Had some very nice stuff, too.

  41. There’s something obviously weird about an anti-market lifestyle that depends on rampant consumerism and accelerated obsolescence for its existence.

    See, I don’t think it’s all that weird. I don’t have any special insight into how Discover makes all its cash, but I’m pretty sure my “short-term interest-free loans plus 5% cash-back” plan relies on others’ fiscal irresponsibility for its existence.

    I mean, I really wish people wouldn’t carry a balance on their credit card from month to month, because it tends to be bad for them. But how else am I supposed to convince financial institutions to pay me to borrow their money?

  42. “It’s about the fact that Reason, like the Freegans, makes a living off of the operations of those they criticize.”

    Well, I was sticking up for your argument, but this is going too far.

    Strictly speaking, Reason makes a living off of the fact that subscribers to and donors to the magazine don’t like the operations of the entity being criticized. That’s not really the same as “making a living” directly off of the entity being criticized.

  43. You depend on a remarkably similar process for your dinner, Kerry.
    This seems to make it about their existence, Joe. Again, Reason can survive without the federal gov’t. Freegans can’t survive without us throwing away food and other essentials.

    Son of a!-
    The difference is that Discover isn’t mouthing anti-high interest rate platitudes at the same time as making a killing off them.

  44. Do freegans trade in their Che Gueverra shirts for Fred Sanford ones?

  45. JB-

    It’s odd to me that libertarians would scoff at this behavior.

    I don’t see many folks scoffing; it rather seems like general indifference. Although Kerry seemed impressed, writing “I’m a freegan fan …”. I for one like it.

    Anyway, I’m a repurposer. I recently took an 8 year old laptop and turned it into a very handsome digital picture frame. And speaking of computers, I have twice turned a heap of surplus part into functional computers for family. Waste not want not.

    My city has a yearly waste pile cleanup. Each neighborhood is cleaned on a given week by roving dump trucks and front-end loaders. Everyone is allowed to put their crap out a couple weeks in advance. It’s crazy as soon as the stuff goes out. All kinds of folks turn up to rummage. Last year my wife and I scavenged some really large rocks for our landscaping from a neighbors trash pile. I saw a couple of women salvaged some 4X4 from the same pile, cutting them free of old cement footings with a chain-saw they brought along. It’s all really fun.

  46. JasonC:

    I’m confused by your analogy. I’m the one who’s in the position of the Freegans, not Discover. I tell people to stay out of debt while profiting off those who ignore me.

    It’s no different than people who tell you to always buy a used car (“Let someone else take the depreciation hit!”). If everyone followed the advice, the auto industry would collapse. That doesn’t make it bad advice, though. In fact, the advice is valuable precisely because most people ignore it.

  47. Yeah, Son of a!, you’re right. I shouldn’t post quickly before I head off to lunch. Mea Culpa.

  48. Jason C,

    “Again, Reason can survive without the federal gov’t.”

    Yes, but they don’t. In the here and now, they have a business model that depends on the government doing things they decry, so they can decry them.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  49. Subsistence urban scavenging in Lagos or Calcutta is ingenious small-scale bootstrap capitalism. Subsitence urban scavenging in New York or Berlin is anti-market weirdness.

    It’s what the person doing the scavenging says it is (even if it’s all really bootstrap capitalism). If I scavenge from the dumpster while yelling “Up yours to the Man(tm)! I’m not participating in your economy!!!”, then it’s revolution. All while I’m participating in the econonomy.

  50. I don’t see many folks scoffing; it rather seems like general indifference.

    Looks like I should have read further…

    Bingo, pigwiggle. A bunch of people participating in the economy, who say they’re not. Indifferent is exactly how I’d describe it.

  51. It’s odd to me that libertarians would scoff at this behavior.

    I don’t think too many libertarians are scoffing at the behavior, I certainly think that the less that ends up in a landfill the better. Of course Craigslist accomplishes the same thing more efficiently, more hygienically, and without the hand wringing. To the extent that I scoff it is at the self-righteous antipathy that so many freegans seem to feel for the hand that feeds them.

    I don’t have any special insight into how Discover makes all its cash, but I’m pretty sure my “short-term interest-free loans plus 5% cash-back” plan relies on others’ fiscal irresponsibility for its existence.

    Ignoring the unsupported assertion that carrying a balance necessarily constitutes fiscal irresponsibility, one of the ways that Discover makes money is that merchants pay a percentage of each transaction back to Discover every time you use your card. Your “short-term interest-free loans plus 5% cash-back” is in large part paid for by people who pay with cash.

  52. they have a business model that depends on the government doing things they decry, so they can decry them.

    That’s only because the government is so massively stupid. If in some fantasy future Reason actually DOES succeed in getting government to stop being so stupid, there are plenty of other half-assed scientists and thoelogians to go after.

    Perhaps if the magazine were called “Stupidity” they might be able to sell more copies; “reason” doesn’t particularly excite the masses.

  53. I hate hippies! I mean, the way they always talk about “protectin’ the earth” and then drive around in cars that get poor gas mileage and wear those stupid bracelets – I hate ’em! I wanna kick ’em in the nuts!

  54. Re: Fair Trade.

    Kerry writes: “His farm isn’t part of a cooperative, a Fair Trade non-negotiable that disqualifies small, independent farmers, larger family farms, and for that matter any multinational that treats its workers well.”

    This is just plain false.
    http://transfairusa.org/

    I found it odd at the time that Kerry would mischaracterize Fair Trade so wildly given that it is one of the more successful examples of a libertarian concept: a private regulatory agency. No government involved,just people providing a service, certification that a product meets specific quality standards. Kerry’s problem with it seems to stem from the fact that the movement started on the left and therefore must be bad.

  55. I’ve got a post on this topic that some of you might want to check out…

    http://imagined-community.com/blog

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