Before June of this year, I thought only the sad and desperate ate garbage. Then I discovered the freegans. For those new to the term (free + vegan), a freegan is a person who has decided to boycott capitalist society by severely curtailing consumption of resources through reusing, recycling and Dumpster diving. Taking the expression "Waste not, want not" to its extreme conclusion, freegans try not to purchase anything up to and including food. Instead, they rely on bartering and what the rest of us leave for the garbageman. Now a presence in most American cities, freeganism first popped up out West in Seattle and Portland in the mid-1990s. At first blush, freegans might seem odd and peripheral. But I began to wonder: are they a fringe group reminiscent of our primitive past or are they our carbon-neutral future? At a time when the environmental movement is gaining mainstream acceptance, the freegans are actually living the most hard-core beliefs about consumption and sustainability.
America's overconsumption is legendary. We struggle with morbid obesity, use 25 percent of the world's oil and buy houses we can't afford. If the mildest projections are true, we are recklessly contributing to the warming of the planet. OK, we've made some changes, but does anyone really believe that "carbon offsetting" is anything other than eating your cake and having it, too?
Thus an innocent idea was born. I would live as a freegan for a month. I had nine rules: I would be a vegan who bought nothing but local and/or organic food. I would use only ecofriendly transportation, cut my electricity bill in half and erase my carbon footprint. My mantra would be "Recycle, reuse, renew," while never forgetting to reflect on my impact on the Earth before acting. Any money I saved would go into a "Freedom Savings Account" and be used toward allowing me to quit my 9-to-5 as soon as possible. That's tough work for an eBay-loving, omnivorous, cigarette-smoking shopaholic. But I was determined to change my profligate ways. I would transform myself into an eco-princess—a green goddess.
That's not exactly what happened. Here is a summary diary of what did.
DAY 1: I want a Diet Coke. I am craving sugar. Sometimes a 75-cent packet of Skittles is all that prevents a co-worker from getting slapped. I haven't been the same since I pitched this story. I see waste everywhere. I feel guilty about everything—doing my laundry, spending a day at the mall, leaving my computer on at night, relaxing in the shower, BUYING FOOD AT THE GROCERY STORE. How can absolutely everything I've been taught to do to survive be wrong?
DAY 2: Caught in the rain, unable to buy an umbrella and late for work is not a good start to this experiment. Luckily, I don't give up in the face of hardship, I whine. Lesson #1: People don't want to hear about your moral superiority or the difficulty of a choice you made voluntarily. It's a bit like models saying their jobs are hard or movie stars complaining about the paparazzi (a bit, just a bit). The only possible response from people is Shut Up! So I did. Briefly.
DAY 3: I watched a freegan "trash tour" (also known as Dumpster diving). Yes, it sounds disgusting, and is illegal in many cities, which is why our lawyers would not let me partake. But you would be surprised at what freegans find in the garbage. I'd bet that you would eat it. I saw trash bags full of bagels so fresh that when they were opened, the air filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread. I also saw canned goods and even toilet paper among the rubbish. The USDA estimates that more than 90 billion pounds of food is wasted in America every year—much of it from inefficient ordering and inventory systems. Combine that with a scarcity of space on store shelves, and grocers cannot afford to let products languish unsold. I also discovered America's Second Harvest. This nonprofit group takes surplus and distressed food and other groceries, distributes it through its network of food banks and thus feeds more than 25 million hungry people a year. So maybe the Freegans have a point.
DAYS 4 – 6: Who knew you could gather wild parsnips, bay leaves and sorrel for your dinner in Brooklyn's Prospect Park? Freegans think of themselves as urban foragers—they root around in public parks for food. It's fun, but don't mushroom-hunt if you, like me, don't know what you're doing—someone could die. DAY 8: Who has time to forage after a hard day's work? Why do I have to make all the sacrifices for this planet? Don't let anyone tell you going green is easy. It's not. It's time-consuming, confusing and infuriating. I was doing fine, living my little piece of the American Dream, and now the inconvenient truth is that I feel bad about it. I like the convenience of modern life. That's the problem with freeganism—it is hard work. Under normal circumstances, I constantly run late. But as a freegan, I was late for 83 percent of my obligations—up sharply from 47 percent the previous month. There are just so many things to do—pack my organic lunch, unplug all my chargers, turn off my computer and put scraps in the compost.
DAY 14: I hate being a vegan. I have wide flat teeth in the back for grain and pointy ones in the front for meat—animals are a natural part of my diet. I feel like I'm starving to death out of guilt over being at the top of the food chain. Sure, I've lost 12 pounds and have lots of energy. So what? There had to be some kind of upside to subsisting on Kashi cereal and peanut butter and jelly. I'm craving sushi so badly, I might go and catch my own. Oh, and it is impossible to compost in a house with three cats.
DAYS 24 – 26: I'm whipsawing wildly from self-righteousness to despair. My poor husband was nearly strangled when he put a non-organic lemon in my iced tea. We are getting a little testy with each other—squabbling over stupid stuff like who gets to press FAST FORWARD on the digital video recorder. Some people say meat makes you aggressive. But meat's got nothing on deprivation. As it turns out, being a freegan is a lonely existence. I didn't want to hang out with my freegan mentors because I feel like a pretender. And I don't want to see my friends. I don't want to be a mooch or a killjoy. That's just what happens when you think most people in the world are living their lives the wrong way.
DAY 31: I expected to go flying back into the arms of my local Target without a glance back. I can't. I would just feel too guilty. And not that free-form kind of liberal guilt because life is harder on some people than it is on me, but real guilt. I know, I whined a lot. It's not easy to make all your decisions in line with your conscience. But we can't deny that our planet is warming and therefore I am hedging my bets. I think I'll try moderation. I've already learned how to turn the lights out when I leave the room. And you know what? I am determined to limit my buying. So one pair of fall shoes won't break my budget or make me feel guilty but 12 pairs would—a distinction that I would not have been able to make four weeks ago. There's too much waste, and I'd like to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And with the twelve hundred dollars I saved, I can now retire two weeks earlier than I planned. I'm a changed woman. Recycle, reuse, renew? You bet. Shopping in the trash? Sorry, can't do it.