Half of a “nutrition bar” sat before me on the wobbly café table. I couldn’t eat the rest because it was oily yet granular but also couldn’t force myself to throw it out. I had arranged to meet freegans at the Other Side coffeehouse on 30th and Lincoln. If they saw me toss out good food, they’d probably think, yeah, another wasteful American. Glancing around to make sure they hadn’t arrived, I wadded the bar up in its foil wrapper and whisked it into an overfilled trash can.
There are “regular people,” who apparently just cannot pass up a bargain. There are the homeless. And there were the philosophical freegans.
My friend Casey had arranged for us to meet the freegans to get the lowdown on their cause, and they’d agreed to take us along with them on their Dumpster-diving route. It was near midnight now. People buzzed about the café, sipping coffees and biting cookies.
“Maybe that’s them,” Casey said, pointing to a group of young men. “They look like they dig in the trash.”
We asked. Wrong guys.
“Maybe that group over there?”
“With the girl?” Casey said, unconvinced. “In an ivory angora sweater?”
“I guess you’re right.” White fuzz was wholly inappropriate for picking through garbage. “Let’s sit down and wait,” I suggested. “I think we’ll know them when we see them.”
From a wordy freegan website (freegan.info), part of their definition of a freegan goes:
“Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations 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. Thus, 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.”
In other words, they don’t like to purchase things because they don’t want to support unethical production means, wastefulness, and rampant consumption. The word “freegan” is a portmanteau, combined from the words “free” and “vegan,” a “vegan” being someone who won’t eat or use products involved with animal harm. A “freegan” is someone who won’t eat or use products unless someone else has already discarded it. (They do this to the best of their ability — it’s gotta be kind of tough.)
I really wanted the freegans to surprise me. I hoped for that “And now a very special Facts of Life” quality that teaches us that we “can’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s not all that implausible. I myself am covered in tattoos, normally wear ill-fitting and cheap clothes, and look like what one might categorize as “dim-witted, incredulous, and worried.” But I’ve studied modern, classical, and contemporary art in the museums of 14 different European countries. So I really wanted that from these guys.
Oh, how I’d hoped that they’d be clean, groomed, wealthy, and healthy. I wanted them to come into the shop, set their rugby ball down, show me their last paycheck for starring in a toothpaste commercial, and roll their sleeves up so we could get down to the business of arm wrestling and long jumping. Alas. Alas. They passed our table, and we knew from the disheveled hair, greasy T-shirts, and aroma that they were our freegans.
I want to be nice to the guys because, as I was to find out shortly, they are all quite affable. But, if you imagine what four twentysomething males who dig in the trash for food look like, you’ve got them. They look exactly the way you think they do. Also, imagine what those trash-digging young men would smell like. And bingo.
Casey and I were a bit nervous. We were unsure of what exactly was taboo in this community, what we could talk about and what we couldn’t.
“Have you guys already been out tonight…um, Dumpster diving?” I asked, not knowing the proper term, trying to break the ice, and attempting to interpret the bouquet.
“No,” they each answered.
“Oh, um. Sorry,” I said. Still feeling pressure to put everyone at ease with some mindless chatter, I asked, “So, are these specially designated clothes for…digging in trash?”
“No,” they each answered, then glanced down at their shirts.
I wanted to cry I was so uncomfortable. I turned to Casey and mouthed, “Help…me.”
“So what do you guys do?” she blurted. Oh, thank God!
Turns out, one of them is a graphic designer, and the others work at an organic, vegan, and raw restaurant. The restaurant uses fresh foods and the employees don’t rummage in other outlets’ garbage to get the ingredients, but still, these guys were seriously grubby. I wrote the name of the restaurant in my book with a “NEVER EAT HERE!” note in the margin.
“Okay, what do you guys call what we’re going to do tonight?” I finally asked.
They preferred the term “Dumpstering,” although they sprinkled into the conversation “Dumpster diving” and just plain old “diving.” Tom, unofficial spokesman for this group, said, “Shopping at D-Mart,” which I thought was the best. But they didn’t use it often.
After getting all their names and ages, I told them I wouldn’t use their real identities. “No, it’s okay,” they all agreed. “You can use our real names.”
They didn’t mind. What they wanted me to assure them of was that I wouldn’t name specifically which stores, locations, and trash bins we’d be visiting in our night of Dumpstering.
“Is it because it’s illegal and you might get a ticket or something?” I asked.
“No,” Tom said. “It’s because, you know, you’ll have this awesome Dumpster, where you just get all kinds of food and stuff. One week it’s fine, the next week there’s a fence around it, there are locks all over it, it’s chained up.”
They were also concerned that if I named the location of an “awesome Dumpster,” there might arise competition in the picking over of leavings. You know how it is when you find a nice little restaurant. If word gets out, the place becomes clogged with newcomers and the quality of the food spirals downward. Same principle.
Regarding the legality of Dumpster diving, they were unsure. The consensus among the group was “Trash is trash. It’s discarded and doesn’t belong to anyone.”
There’s a Supreme Court ruling that freegan and Dumpster-diving “junk dealer” websites fondly cite. The case is California v. Greenwood of 1988. In it, Investigator Jenny Stracner of the Laguna Beach Police asked a trash collector to bring her the garbage of Billy Greenwood. In the trash, Investigator Stracner found drug paraphernalia and with that as evidence petitioned a judge for a search warrant of Greenwood’s apartment, which turned up more drug evidence.
The Supreme Court found that police going through your trash is not a violation of your Constitutional rights to privacy as protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Court said that Greenwood left his trash on the curb for pickup, essentially giving it away. They also noted that it is common knowledge that trash set outside of private property is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.” I like that the Supreme Court said “scavengers and snoops.” It has a nostalgic and romantic ring to it.
The case established this: it’s not illegal for police to dig through your trash. The leap that freegans and junk dealers want us to make is that it’s okay for civilians to do the same — a principle with incredible potential to whip around and bite your ass.
Tom said, “It probably depends on what state you’re in and the cop who finds you.” Wisely he noted, “It’s probably not illegal to take someone’s garbage, but what are you going to do, argue with a cop?”
The four freegans debated legality for a minute, sometimes reversing a previous stance. What they agreed on is, trespassing and making a mess are definitely against the law, and if an owner, manager, or employee wanted to press the issue, that’s what they’d use.
Tom said that the one time he was hassled was in a different state, in the bin of a sporting goods store during a cross-country trip. “The police pulled up and told us to leave, and that was it, we just got out and left.”
“While you traveled, were you eating from Dumpsters out of necessity?” I asked.
Tom leaned back, looked up, and thought for a second. “I’ve never been faced with the option of either eating from the trash or not eating at all. But it was a ‘necessity’ to save money, which let me travel longer.”
The guys agreed; none of them had ever needed to Dumpster dive. And they’d each been doing it for the better part of a decade. They did it to save money, but also because they disagree with the amount of food thrown away in this country.
Concerning their stance on waste, it’s hard to disagree philosophically with the freegans. We’re a wasteful country. A study by the USDA from 1997, but still in wide use, reports that “5.4 billion pounds of food were lost at the retail level in 1995.” The “retail level” applies to food that was produced on a farm or factory but never reached a restaurant or consumer. Mostly, that food is discarded from grocery stores.
That’s 5.4 BILLION pounds. Let’s convert that numeric concept of weight into something visual and cool, one of my favorites: dump trucks. American company Caterpillar makes a big yellow-and-black mother dump truck they call the Model 797B. It’s one of the biggest dump trucks in the world, measuring in at 32 feet wide (yes, wide). The Caterpillar 797B can handle a payload of 380 U.S. tons —- a U.S. ton is exactly 2000 pounds. So by my calculations, the 1995 retail loss of food equaled 7105 gigantic dump truck loads. Over 7000 dump truck loads of food, wow. Parked side by side, at 32 feet wide each, a line of those mega dump trucks would span a little over 43 miles. All of them filled with food that at one time was edible, and all of it thrown out to rot in a landfill.
Looking at those facts, the only intelligent conclusion one can draw is that a better system should be devised. The freegans think they have it. In short: Dumpster diving. If a food item hits the trash but is still fit for consumption, they labor to round it up and make sure it’s eaten.
That was our plan for the night’s adventure. We decided to quit jabbering in the dim coffeehouse and instead venture out into the murky night, breathe in crisp air, and plunder trash bins. Excelsior!
You can already guess that the Volkswagen van, our chariot, was dismal, sputtering, cluttered. Casey said the interior looked like a set for the slasher movie Saw. It also smelled of brown rice and forsaken soymilk. In the back seat I searched for a window to crack. My efforts were futile.
I promised I wouldn’t name the outlets we were to visit that night, but I will tell you that both places are major staples of La Jolla. We traveled in the clunky camper van from the quaint streets of North Park, up the 5, past the bright spiky towers of the Mormon temple. Then we wiggled our way through surface streets until the consensus was that we were lost.
“I think it’s back that way, dude” was offered but turned down by the driver.
As we drove on, Tom figured out where we were and skillfully directed us on to the first stop. “On the other side of this fence is the entrance,” he said. “It’s before the parking lot. It’ll take us to the back.” We motored in. Loading docks behind the store sat silent. I checked my phone; it was half past midnight.
Horror from the scent, and fear of potential maiming in the mechanically unsound deathbox, abated when we reached our first destination and cracked open the door.
“Was the van free?” I asked and received a glare in response. We disembarked into the pools of mercury light that flooded the cold asphalt parking lot of a major grocery chain. Four Dumpsters lined up in a row.
Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. Let me tell you a brief story of something nice, really quick. This little story will cleanse the palate, and then we’ll forge on.
On a baking-hot afternoon last week, I rode my bike up University Avenue. A man pushed a cooler cart emblazoned with images and names of icy treats like “Daffy Duck Taffy Pop!” and “Cherry Creamsicle!” I stopped my bike and fished around in my back pocket, only to discover I’d left my wallet at home. I asked how much a “watermelon Bomb Pop!” was and hunted for change.
When he said, “One dollar twenty-five, my friend,” my palm turned over, filled with pocket gatherings, and revealed five quarters. Incredible providence!
If you’ve never had one, let me tell you, a watermelon Bomb Pop descends to Earth on little pink wings of sweet goodness. Mine was so frosty it stuck to my lips at first but, as it melted, offered itself up to me in the form of sugary juicy love. After our divine encounter, I set the watermelon Bomb Pop’s stick and wrapper in a nearby trash can, without touching the receptacle.
That’s my little story of Everything That Went Right and Nothing Gross Happened. Feel better? Now, let’s get to the nasty stuff. (I promise to use sensitivity.)
Back to the Dumpsters. These particular Dumpsters surprised me. They were shorter than the normal ones. The edge of the Dumpsters behind my apartment building were probably collarbone height, but those we first encountered with the freegans that night might have reached the waistband of my jeans.
“Our” Dumpsters also weren’t gut-wrenchingly disgusting inside. Gusts from the nearby coast delivered scents of seaweed and salt; the area was not at all “Dumpster-y” smelling. Before we’d gone out, I’d steeled my constitution in preparation for the worst. Really, I hadn’t needed to be so uptight. Inside, the metal walls of the bins were dusty but not horrendous and offensive. You wouldn’t want to bend over the lip of the thing at your waist with your mouth open and drag your tongue around, but the interiors weren’t slime covered and reeking of forgotten meat as I had imagined they would be.
Looking into the bins, I saw that there wasn’t much in them. Two stood completely empty, one had inconsequential papers in it, and only one had anything of any use to anyone: random wilted fruits and vegetables along its floor. I popped my finger into my mouth and extracted it, holding it up. Testing for wind velocity and barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, I concluded the air was just right for shopping at D-Mart. I grabbed the edge, leaned over, and swung myself in.
“I got a plant!” one of the guys exclaimed.
Tom took the little brown plastic cube with the green sprout out of the top and inspected it. “Dude,” he said, “you can take this home if you’d like, but it’s a shamrock. Shamrocks are basically free. This is a weed.”
Dejected, the other young man replaced the plant in the bin.
Casey hustled to the van to retrieve milk crates we’d brought along with us, while everyone else took seats along the Dumpster edge, our legs inside.
“Get the gloves too,” I yelled. I had brought a bag of latex gloves along. They sat on a seat bench in the van, but they seemed prissy to me now as I stood in an almost empty and practically clean receptacle with four guys who had spent two weekends per month of the last six years in real gunk up to their ankles. “Uh, never mind,” I called to Casey.
She brought the bag of gloves anyway. “You want these, Alice?”
“Too late now, isn’t it,” I said and held my hands up. What I wanted to say was “Psssh! I’m super tough!” but I didn’t. I put the bag of gloves in the front pocket of my sweatshirt. We all bobbed down and picked at things.
“Why am I putting these artichokes into this box?” Tom asked rhetorically. “This box is sickening.” I didn’t dare look inside the cardboard box he had across his lap. He removed the artichokes from it and placed them in the milk crate Casey set on the edge of the Dumpster next to where Tom sat.
We filled the crate with everything we had then exited the can. After editing out some produce that had decidedly joined the dark forces, the haul was complete and we took inventory. “What do we have here?”
“Four artichokes; five bell peppers; and one watermelon.”
“And a shamrock,” one of them said and dropped the small brown container with the lucky weed into the Milk Crate o’ Treasure.
“Kind of a crappy haul,” I said. “We drove about 15 miles in a Volkswagen bus to get here…let’s see, that’s about…” I wanted to figure out how much fuel we’d consumed in our pursuit of four brown artichokes smeared in red gelatinous goo. The guys stopped me before I had it calculated.
“We know,” one said. “It doesn’t work out sometimes. We’ve had a lot of bad luck lately. It doesn’t even pay to do it anymore.”
They felt bad about the pitiful load. They wanted to show us, the newcomers, that it wasn’t a wasted pursuit. Casey and I wanted to believe that what they were doing made a difference. But there it sat, a watermelon and an armload of wilted vegetables in a milk crate, our vessel of disappointments, small and illuminated by embarrassing parking-lot light.
“So why do you do it?” Casey asked. “For the chicks?”
“That’s the running joke,” Tom said. “Matter of fact, you’re the first one.”
“We’ll try one other place,” the driver of the van said. “Nobody’s ever found it, but we might tonight. It might pan out.”
We loaded the Crate o’ Sad Plunderings into the van and embarked. We rattled out of the lot and onto the road. Streetlights and palm trees whizzed past in the navy blue night, and the guys talked of our potential next target. It existed in rumor only. Friends of friends knew people who worked at this grocery chain, and the rhapsody unwound about the freshness and cleanliness of the offerings. To hear the tale you’d think this grocery outlet stopped just short of setting out café tables with napkins and silverware for their fresh, hot, complimentary comestibles.
The legend of our fantasy Dumpster rivaled that of only one other place. A mom-and-pop grocer in East County had been a favorite of freegans, homeless, and what our guys said were “regular people.”
“Regular people?” Casey asked.
“Yeah,” Tom said. “It worked out too. Nobody fought over anything, it just worked out. It was all cool. Regular people would take the stuff we didn’t want: meat, cheese, all that. We’d get the breads, vegetables, pizza dough, pizza sauce, stuff like that.”
As we drove, the freegans told us of the division between Dumpster divers. There are “regular people,” who apparently just cannot pass up a bargain. There are the homeless, poor lost souls who we’re all comfortable with having rummage through crap. And there were the philosophical freegans, who did it for good cause. The groups don’t get along, but the East County Dumpster of Yore used to serve as a civil territory. Until one day the guys drove out to their favorite trash bin and saw that it had been locked up. Employees or owners, who had previously encouraged the nosing about, had put an end to it with chains and a fence. No homeless, freegans, or “regular people” allowed anymore.
We didn’t know what type of people we’d run into at the New Folkloric Dumpster of La Jolla, although we weren’t worried. Tom said there was mostly just friction between the groups, never confrontation.
We pulled the rocking and swaying Stinkswagen into the parking lot. The Mini Mall of the Legendary La Jolla Dumpster sits between two major streets, not too far from the Mormon Temple and only a quick ride to the tony art galleries and couture clothing shops of Girard Avenue and Prospect Street. Mercedes-Benzes and Porsche SUVs streamed in around us. Even well past midnight, cougars in slick high heels and designer bejeweled jackets prowled the shopping center. We wore hooded sweatshirts and crappy stained jeans, looking as if we were there to collect their trash and eat it. We cruised around to the back lot, behind a furnishing store, movie theater, and the grocery store we aimed to scavenge.
After hunting around the rear lot and investigating the underground garage, we spotted a big blue Dumpster. If the last bins we’d visited were built for easy foraging, with their low lips and wide-open lids, this one stood as a testament to impenetrability. This was like the Pentagon’s Dumpster. The can was a good ten feet tall, its gate chained and locked, and three sides of the Dumpster were surrounded by brick wall.
Gecko-like, I sprung up from a nearby banister, scaled the brick wall, then crept around its top. The guys came up too. Besides a pair of crutches, a scattered ream of paper, and a sleeping bag that looked as though it moonlighted in a pet hospital, the giant can was empty.
“Maybe someone lives here. There are crutches and a sleeping bag,” one of the guys said.
“Are you suggesting someone who needs crutches jumps from that banister, climbs that wall, and drops ten feet to get to his home?” I said.
“Either way,” Tom said, “it smells like poop and cough medicine.”
Glum, we dropped down from the wall. We kicked our shoes and dragged our heels, saying things like “Well, we tried” and “I guess that great Dumpster doesn’t exist.” We looked like a scruffy bunch of mid-century Little Leaguers who lost the big game. (Perhaps scruffier.)
Across the chilly parking lot, our van waited to carry us home. Meandering past a large beige shed, Tom reached over and opened its metal cabinet door almost as a bored afterthought to a dejected evening. After a peek inside he jolted and shouted, “HOLY SHIT! GET THE VAN! HOLY SHIT! GET THE VAN!”
The guys ran to get the van, their shoes scuffing along on the asphalt. I peered over Tom’s shoulder into a vast hold filled with cardboard boxes and fluffy plastic bags. It was definitely a full container of trash, and it looked to be from a grocery store. He hurriedly handed me a box and began pulling out more and more items and laying them on the blacktop.
What could be in the box? It was almost like Christmas! “Uh,” I said, opening it, spinning the box and extracting a puffy clear pouch from inside. “This one’s got peanuts.” There were 30 bags bigger than your fist, all lined up inside, all unopened.
Casey ripped into one of the large plastic bags and retrieved smaller bags filled with brown glop. She held the sacks in her clothespinned fingers because of a smear of undetermined sauce along the outside. I looked the blobs over but couldn’t make anything out. One of the masters of identifying amorphous lumps in sticky plastic sacks said, “That’s pizza dough.”
The van arrived and we dragged more and more out of the beige shed. Large trash cans filled with onions and oranges. Boxes of bread.
While Casey and I stood there gawping at what we’d amassed, out of the cabinet door Tom slung a large bag. The bag rolled, twisting in the air. It landed at our feet with a splash. A bottom seam of the bag had been split, and the hole blew out a flow of sludge onto us. My hands were up in front of my face. Casey wasn’t as lucky.
I rolled my forearm over, and at the sight of what clung to me I involuntarily contorted my face into the emotional configuration of “Berserk Objection.” Smeared from wrist to elbow was a dense, sticky coat of black congealed crud. Someone screamed. It might’ve been me.
“What is this?” I shouted, eyes shut, holding my contaminated arm to the side and as far away from my face as anatomically possible. I peeked.
Casey bent over at the waist and gagged.
“What is this?!” I shouted again.
“I swallowed something,” she said.
“I swallowed something, something from that bag.” She righted herself and with her sleeve wiped at an oily film on her cheek and lip.
While I was interested in what had happened to her, my own possible contamination had arrested my attention. I searched the busted sack and asphalt for a clue as to what coated my arm. There, disemboweled from a cracked plastic shell lay strewn four chocolate cupcakes with smeary black icing. Oh, sweet molasses in the morning, thank you, it was only chocolate frosting. Bent in on myself like a whooping crane yogi, using the bottom of my shoe, I scraped the goo off of my arm.
I was relieved, but I don’t think Casey was. She had that look, one that only girls can make, that says: We need to go.
“You all right?” I asked.
“No, I’m not. I just…drank…something.” Her hands fluttered. She grimaced and swallowed. “Something from that bag splashed into my mouth.”
“What did it taste like?”
“Cinemuck,” she said. “Cinemuck just flew into my mouth.” Cinemuck, she told me, tastes like hot dog wrappers marinated in popcorn butter, Coke syrup, and nacho cheese. She said it was also slightly warmer than her own body.
“Well, how much of it did you…drink?”
“About a teaspoon.”
I gagged but didn’t feel so bad about my sugarcoated arm. At least the filth that splashed me hadn’t penetrated my mouth. We collected ourselves as best we could.
After throwing some eggs and cheese back into this odd Dumpster that looked like a beige shed with a metal door, we cleared the tarmac of our filth as best we could and loaded our bounty into the VW Stenchmobile.
Its metal door rolled shut, and we traveled, encapsulated in the cargo area, which was crowded with puffy bags of former food/garbage/now food again. In all, we’d pulled out whole trash bags and boxes full of bread, lemons, onions, peppers, mushrooms, pizza dough, peanuts, and salad. It all sat around us in the van. Streetlight yellow glare strobed the interior as we glided along the freeway beneath a glorious moon.
“How did you guys all meet?” I yelled over the creak and clamor of the old van. “You know, when I was your guys’ age I was a drug kid. But you can’t just bring that sort of thing up at a party. You can’t just blurt out, ‘Hey, who wants to do coke or E or meth?’ You know? You have to be cool about it. Some people don’t like that kind of stuff around them. And it’s illegal. So how did you guys meet? How did you broach the subject of picking through trash?”
Tom said, “We all met through mutual friends. I think I just asked, ‘Hey, who wants to Dumpster dive?’ ”
The Driver turned his head a bit to project his voice to me. “It’s not that out of place with our friends. We hang out with pretty dirty people.”
“Well,” Tom interjected. “We just don’t think the world is as dirty as ‘they’ would have us believe.” The freegans definitely had a knack for this, and in some way, I guess, it helped out with the waste of our nation. Activism, a low income, and an indifference to black fingernail grit made eating usable trash a natural thing for them. I didn’t think I had the guts for it though.
“Anyone ever get sick from this stuff?”
No. None of them had ever gotten sick from eating trash.
“I even ate eggs once,” Tom said. You can imagine the potential for violent fluid eruption if a person gobbles down eggs from a sun-baked trash bin. “Never been sick from it.”
Our van slowed and we exited the freeway, motoring through the sleepy neighborhood of North Park. We unpacked the crates, bags, and boxes at a house. Casey and I said our thank-yous and left them.
Two days later Casey called. She was sick.
“I think it’s just allergies,” she said.
“I think it’s already-been-eaten hot dog grease and backwashed Coke.”
“Shut up. It’s allergies. Did you get sick?”
“No,” I answered. “Although I wasn’t happy about what I looked like when I got home. There was something in my eyebrow. Something I’d rather not discuss.”
“We didn’t even use the gloves,” Casey said, proud. She coughed.
“I know. They’re still in my sweatshirt, which I may or may not burn,” I said. “Well, even though you contracted hepatitis A through Q from drinking other people’s leavings, I think it was a success.”
Still chatting with Casey, I walked out my apartment courtyard, headed for the mini-mart down the street. I wanted a small bag of cashews and an iced tea. At the corner, I passed a city trash can. I couldn’t help leaning over and taking a look inside.