The Artemisia, Spring 2008

In the Dumps

By Clarissa León

That midnight we drove the same stretch of road Adam had taken weeks before. Sixteen-wheelers lined up to the right and left of us, frozen as if they were in their own graveyard. Each warehouse we passed had the same plaster gray or sandpaper brown as the next. But Adam knew where we were going.

"You'll take the next right," he said from the back seat. "Then take a left, and then it'll be a close right."

We arrived and parked parallel to the security camera, careful so we wouldn't show the car's license plate. I went along with Adam and his friend that night, knowing we could be caught. But Adam assured me they had never run into any cops. Still, he argued, what we were doing was completely legal. "The only time it's not is if there's a trespassing violation."

I got out of the car and looked straight at the security camera. I stared, forgetting it was recording my face. Adam jumped out of the car and headed straight towards our goal - the dumpster. He began ramming a car jack in a tiny gap left from the company dumpster's lid. Each turn of the jack the gap grew. By the end a foot-and-a-half tall gap could fit Adam through. He pulled himself up and dove into the dumpster as his feet crashed on the valuable trash.

His hands began digging and digging through the hard edges of the stale cardboard and what remained of a warehouse operation. Within a few seconds, Adam pulled out a case of drinks from the trash, lifted them up and pushed them through the gap.

It was the first success of the night. Our hooded sweatshirts hid our eyes each time we snatched up more drinks, more food, more of what we wanted.

The storyline isn't easy to explain. "Freeganism - we're taking what you throw away and using it for us." In Adam's eyes, and the eyes of those who practice "freeganism" this dumpster diving was a dive for perfectly useful food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Their methods are unusual but their methods are yet another form of sustainability.

Adam lifted another box above his shoulders. Each operation took less than 10 minutes - no waste of time either. The food felt a bit sticky and came out of the dumpsters bruised around the edges, crushed by pounds of trash in a giant black bag. But more often than not, the food was perfect except it had expired a day or two ago.

On our next excursion, I was on hand-off duty. Adam passed me day-old Doritos and Fritos. I took them from his hands so he could do more scanning of the dumpster with his flashlight. Boxes crushed his back and dirty plastic bags, smelling of paper boxes and rot, closed in on the side of his face. Then another box came out - sports memorabilia with the Lay's logo. His friend took over on handoff duty and I scribbled my notes down and peered inside the dumpster whose lid, this time, reached the top of my head.

By the end of that night, our food run to Trader Joe's, Lays, Krispy Kreme and others amounted to more than $300 worth of food. We took at least 13 bags of chips, 15 bottles of drinks some half gallons, others ounces. In one odd discovery we found nearly 10 pounds of clothes. We had done well.

Freeganism: A closer look

At the root of freeganism is the practice of a no-waste policy. All the food or objects freegans find, after careful inspection, can be washed off and ready to use. They determine what they want to keep. It's been called "voluntary simplicity" or "monetary minimalism."

Some say "freegan" is a blend of "free" and "vegan." The saying went that freegans would only be vegan unless what they got from the dumpster wasn't. Meaning, they'd be vegan outside of the dumpster and vegetarians when the chips, bread or cheese came from the depths of the dumpster. This is how Adam is a vegan, but still knee-deep in Krispy Kreme donuts. Still, freegans don't have to be searching for food.

According to World Wide Words, a dictionary authored by Michael Quinion from the Oxford English Dictionary, freeganism is "more a political philosophy." It is defiance against, "the wasteful consumerist culture of the developed world."

This is where Food Not Bombs comes in. Adam has been practicing freeganism since October, he says. But most of what he has learned is from a local group, Food Not Bombs. FNB has gone on numerous dumpster dives and according to their international organization, are one of the "fastest growing revolutionary movements," in the world.

Unlike Adam, the food FNB finds is sometimes taken to the homeless. The International FNB organization promotes this act of charity as well. As the definition of freeganism implies, FNB has worked to end "exploitation and the destruction of the earth." Being freegan is one more way to accomplish this.

Freegan Moves

When I went out with Adam that night, it seemed the freegan "movement" was contained right where we were. In actuality freeganism is a much nicer word for what people - the homeless, the needy, the thrifty - have been doing for years. But, the difference with freegans is that in many cases, it's not need that drives them but "defiance" against consumerist culture. Questions remain, how do you free yourself from a consumerist culture? How do you stop the waste? How do you shop in a consumerist culture and still be ethical? The answer might lead you to becoming a freegan., a freegan organization based in New York, states that, "Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical consideration and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider." Their Web site adorns a Starbuck's logo at the top left of their page, but on closer inspection it's not really a Starbucks logo it's "Big Bucks, Capitalism" logo. provides links to foraging sites, to food waste facts and their freegan philosophy. Although freegans can be freegan for many reasons, pinpoints a major theme in the practice. "Instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able."

Freegans Around Us

Freeganism and its culture have been featured in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Newsweek to name a few. In these articles, people go to the trash in search of things left behind from someone else - it's the ‘Another man's trash, is another man's treasure' adage. Sometimes they forage in the daytime and sometimes in the night.

The article "Not Buying It" by Steven Kurutz, features Madeline Nelson, who quit her six-figure salary and became a freegan. In February, Oprah herself began a report on the freegan movement that has spawned to numerous groups around the world.

Freegan info itself can be read in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Czech.

In Reno, Nev. groups such as the Reno Free Store are attempting to create a freegan-style exchange of clothing and objects. Their goal is at the basis of freeganism, as they want to "raise awareness about American consumerism an over-consumption, to promote recycling and re-use, to create an alternate exchange network outside of the capitalist framework."

On days they've set up the Free Store (the location changes) people can rummage through appliances or clothes and then take it for free. In essence, it's an organized dumpster dive, an extension of freeganism.

After the Dive

Adam goes about once or twice a week on a dumpster run if he has people who will go with him. He usually stocks up enough to last him for a week. He might have also distributed his findings to his friends.

On another outing he stocks up even more. It's incredible to see that in the course of an hour he could be set for a week without having done so much as a little dirty work. There are boxes of snacks, bread, some vegetables and yams. I know that if he goes in two weeks he'll still find food. If he goes in a month, he would still see trash that he could use to eat.

I see a bag of bread and think, What was wrong with this? Around town there are good dumpsters - no composted produce or mashed up chow mein. Then there are the bad ones that make you think what a waste of good food. But the intricacies of freeganism don't end or begin with that big green monster - the dumpster. Someone had to throw the stuff in there and eventually, someone had to dive in and rescue it.


The names in this article are false to protect the identity of the sources. Freeganism is legal unless there is a trespassing violation to which the "dumpster diver" can be prosecuted. No crimes were committed on this particular night.