“How is this garbage?” Janet Kalish asks playfully as she sits down for dinner with fellow dumpster divers. The garden salad before them is a harvest of fresh broccoli, carrots, green beans, and red peppers. The egg noodle soup is hearty, and the health bread accompanying it soft and coated in seeds. A bowl of mixed beans sits alongside mashed potatoes, and the home-made chocolate cake is fit for display in any midtown bakery. No one would guess that all this was rescued from New York City dumpsters and curbside trash bags.
Freegans, as the dinner’s attendees call themselves, adhere to a lifestyle that eschews the use of money whenever possible. According to www.freegan.info, freeganism is “a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of production ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts.”
On a “trash tour” several nights prior, Kalish surveyed a display of rescued food outside a Food Emporium — cabbage heads, asparagus, cauliflower, apples, pears, carrots, chestnuts, etc — and said to the thirty or so people in attendance: “This is not a special night. This [discarding of food] is happening six nights a week, and not just in this city, but all over the country and it’s happening on a massive scale.” Gesturing with a banana, she adds “This banana from Honduras shouldn’t be traveling all this way to end up on the curbside as garbage.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans dispatch some 30 million tons of food waste to landfills every year, comprising 18% of the total waste stream, second only to paper. Since the closure of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island over a decade ago, New York City has resorted to exporting its garbage. Now it is trucked to waste transfer stations in low-income neighborhoods, where the increase in truck traffic serves only to compound air pollution.
From there, the garbage is hauled off to landfills in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and other states, where the food decomposes, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that according to the EPA is 21 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. The release of methane into the atmosphere contributes to climate change and, ironically, food insecurity in other regions of the world.
What accounts for all the waste? Cindy Rosin, who has been dumpster diving in New York City for some 15 years, explains that “it comes down to the fact that nothing is valuable unless it could make somebody a dollar.” In a supermarket aiming to project an image of freshness and plenty, shelf space is cherished. The slightest blemish on a piece of fruit, damaged packaging, or the passing of the sell-by date is grounds for disposal.
More puzzling is the fact that so much of the food freegans find is without fault altogether, oftentimes still in its original packaging and marked with an expiration date days or even weeks into the future. One explanation may be that stores on contract with suppliers often find it more expedient to purchase in bulk, even if they have to discard food that doesn’t sell.
At the table, the freegans take a moment to reflect before digging in. Rosin addresses the newcomers: “We’re here to share a meal made of a tiny portion of the wasted resources that can be found in our city.” In so doing, she says, we “reclaim our food tradition. We are placing value in that food, in the labor it took to make it, in the Earth’s resources that went into it.”