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Are you a freegan?

May 21 2009
London freegan Barry Patterson London freegan Barry Patterson
Nearly a quarter of the food buried in British landfill sites is edible, and freegans want to change our thinking about waste An age-old practice is now a modern lifestyle choice. The next time you eat, think about where you are getting your meal from. If it came from a bin, give yourself a pat on the back. You are a freegan, and doing a fine job at it. Freeganism - a combination of the words 'free' and 'vegan' - is thought to have started in the US over the last decade, with the principle of reducing the rampant waste that humans leave in the course of consuming food, clothes, furniture and other items. One freegan slogan goes: "We'll eat your scrap, but we won't buy your crap." Freegans do this by getting items they need from bins, skips and the side of the road. The Wetlands Institute is a nonprofit organisation, which protects 6,000 acres of land, and they strongly advocate this way of life as a means of saving the planet from further destruction. is an international project designed to educate people to practical alternatives to excessive consumerism. In New York City, they organise educational tours, where people are first shown the level of waste that companies create, and then shown how easy it is to survive without creating more waste - or spending any money. "It's hard not to look at the waste we encounter and think of all the unmet needs that it represents," says Adam Weissman, the man credited with making the movement so big. He regularly organises 'trash tours' and 'dumpster diving' nights, where people forage for food throughout the city of New York. According to him, 50 per cent of the food in the US, much of which is imported from developing nations where food is scarce, is wasted, while 45 million people die every year of hunger or malnutrition. "People are often incredulous when I tell them that freegan food is perfectly safe," Weissman says, before citing various examples from doctors and nutritional experts claiming that it may be "no more dangerous" than buying food from a supermarket. Often 'best before' dates are simply that: best before, but not harmful afterwards. According to Dr Ruth Kava, American Council on Science and Health, the most likely way to hurt yourself is falling head-first into an empty skip. Freeganism has caught on fast, and has been popular in the UK for at least a couple of years. Internet groups like 'Meetup' are a useful way for people to arrange to meet in groups and go out into the city at night. Around 17m tons of food are buried in British landfill sites every year, four million of which are edible. This often happens because it is cheaper for companies to dump them, rather than re-distribute them. But it means there is a veritable banquet of goodies waiting to be discovered. In a recent interview with The Independent, two London-based freegans demonstrated the ease with which they could find food. Marks & Spencer's and Morrison's apparently lock away their rubbish, but behind supermarkets like Iceland and Tesco's, they found enough food to share out with others. "The image that freegans are martyrs consuming scraps and rotten items is a complete myth. In fact, for many of us, freeganism has meant being able to eat far better than when we were forced to buy our food," states Weissman. But the majority of freegans - as with members of other anti-capitalist movements - tend to be people from "backgrounds of relative privilege"; people who have no real fear of dying from hunger or struggling to survive. "Freegans believe in going beyond charities," says Weissman. "Our dinner events include everyone from retired corporate executives, to teachers, to students, to homeless people. We are working to create a model where the needs of all are met, irrespective of income." In New York, freegans hand out flyers to inform people of the possibility of existing as a freegan, and distribute the excess food they have collected. "Freegans break down the idea of wealthy people charitably serving 'needy' people, and instead build a community where we participate as equals amidst shared resources," Weissman declares. Freeganism may be the latest fad, a novelty which will come and go overnight, but if more people become aware that there is such a thing as a free lunch, it could be here to stay. "We don't see liberating the days of our lives simply as a temporary act of resistance," says Weissman, "but rather a model of how everyone can live." After reading this you may be interested in becoming a freegan, or you may already be a freegan, but just didn't realise it. Either way, your part of a growing eco-movement. When our photographer went out on the freegan trail he met Barry Patterson, who was returning from collecting a bag of free sandwiches (which he kindly shared with our man). Asked what he was going to do next, Patterson said, "I'm going back to get a trailer, and then get some more sandwiches." Freeganism in practice.