I’ve salvaged furniture from the dumpster, and have even saved some imperfect but still-edible produce. But as someone who tries to be frugal, I passed on freeganism because it conflicted with some of my values. To be clear, frugality (as defined by the Reddit community) is “the mental approach we each take when considering our resource allocations – time, money, convenience, and many other factors.” Freeganism, while its origins began with anti-consumerism and veganism, has steered into the direction of not spending at any cost and living on the discarded excess of society. It has recently garnered much media attention in Singapore. So why can freegan thinking lead to unhealthy behaviours?
What It Really Means to Be Freegan
I’ve met a true freegan once. No, this wasn’t a dumpster diving uncle who had his meals sourced from the dumpster or delivered from social welfare organisations. This was a retired couple who lived in a paid-off self-built home (in the States), generated solar electricity, used well water, and grew or foraged everything they ate.
They were Adventist and they were vegans. And like bears, they noticeably gained weight during the harvest seasons and lost it during the winter. They truly lived off the land.
But their lives were not easy. Although they had retired from their careers, they worked the land every day. Their participation in the conventional economy, as well as their carbon footprint, was minuscule.
There are actually a lot of people who are like this – subsistence farmers, tribal foragers, scavengers, and members of a collective or commune. They’re just not commonly seen in the first world. And in the third world, their lifestyle is not referred to as freeganism; it’s just survival.
What Freeganism Has Become in Singapore
I agree with some principles of freeganism, such as minimising consumption. However, many self-proclaimed freegans I’ve met in Singapore seem to have increased their consumerism since their conversion. They consume, not by buying, but by finding or receiving.
Their dumpster diving expeditions produce an almost drug-like high, no different than what conventional consumer shopping gives a shopaholic. They even describe it similarly. “When I find things, it makes me so happy. I can’t wait to take it home to admire it,” one freegan told me. If you replace the word “find” with “buy”, the thinking and behaviours are essentially the same. It’s just that one involves the exchange of money.
In the Freegan in Singapore Facebook Group and WhatsApp chat group, every item found and offered is almost immediately “choped” and taken by other freegan members. If the intent was truly to reduce consumption (i.e, anti-consumerism), there should be a reluctance to possess the item, a desire to pass it on to those who truly need it, and an outcry to reduce its demand and production. Instead, “Gone in 60 Seconds” is an often used phrase in the chat group, indicating to others that the aforementioned item is no longer available. Another freegan member has snatched it.
Many of them say they are reducing harm to the environment, but as one blogger put it, “Just because one picks up something for free that has been discarded, and doesn’t directly give money to the corporation which produced it, doesn’t make the production of that item harmless. The lack of money changing hands hardly ‘divorces’ a consumer good from the harm.”
Freegans decry capitalism, but they are still benefiting from it. They say they don’t like waste, but rely on others to be wasteful to continue in their ways. Many of them operate under the guise of environmentalism, but when you talk to them, they mostly want to tell you about their sensational finds and how thrilling it was to get their first branded handbag.
Some of the more enlightened freegans do scavenge and dumpster dive for the purpose of redistributing the goods to those in need. Or they do it to raise awareness about the wastage in Singapore. These types of freegans I commend, and they could serve as role models to other freegans. But not every freegan reaches this state. Most freegans I meet merely substitute price-constrained consumerism with a free unfettered hyper-consumerism, and mistakenly believe they have already reached a state of enlightenment.
Some freegans believe strongly in gatecrashing weddings and private events to rescue and help themselves to buffet food. Some of them will insist on leftovers from a cafe to be given to them free at the end of the day. Others will ask their neighbours for uneaten food but not bother to investigate the reason behind the waste, such as a medical condition or a welfare organisation delivering food that is unwanted.
In the chat group, some freegans jokingly proclaim that spending money “is a crime”. And when someone confesses his crime for the day (that he spent money on something), others chime in to jokingly rebuke him.
Many of them also don’t realise that there was a salvage economy long before they entered the scene. And their dumpster diving activities may have displaced some karung gunis or those living inpoverty, who rely on disposed goods for survival. They, unlike these freegans, can’t just opt out of the lifestyle when they feel like it.
I’ve previously spoken with representatives from waste management (Veolia) and e-waste recycling (TES). They’ve told me about their current waste processing methods and future plans for reclaiming materials, such as food waste, metals, lithium ion batteries, and construction debris. As a former chemical engineer, I’ve personally seen the process of reclaiming materials, processing waste though bioreactors, and generating fuel through biomass.
In San Francisco and Davis (both places I’ve lived in), composting and biofuel generation is big business. And freely taking their raw materials (that is, food or other materials from dumpsters) can be akin to stealing.
There’s a reason why each dumpster is provided by a waste disposal company and stamped with a company name. And often, there are locks on these dumpster. The waste company technically owns not just the container, but its contents. And they are in the business (and better suited than individual freegans) of processing those contents.
How Frugality is Better
1. Having a frugal mindset will result in an overall reduction of consumption. The desire to buy (or consume) is lessened, and with lower demand comes lower supply. In the 3 R’s of sustainability, though “Reduce” comes before “Reuse” and “Recycle”, it often gets the least attention. While freegans reduce their own buying, many of them desire for those at the top to continue their wild spending so that they can eventually receive any excess for free.
2. Remember that dumpster diving still is considered trespassing if you’re not given explicit permission. And trespassing on one’s property or in a dumpster, which is the waste company’s property, is illegal. There’s also a specific regulation regarding dumpster diving in Section 10 of the Environmental Public Health (Public Cleansing) Regulations.
3. Let’s also not forget to mention the possible health and safety issues. Dumpster diving for food can lead to food poisoning, hepatitis A, and foodborne botulism, among other things. And dumpster diving for items might bring bed bugs or lice into your home.
4. Another downside to dumpster diving is a tendency to hoard. A Singaporean freegan once told me, “Just think that everything you’ve ever wanted but could not buy [or afford to buy], you can now have for free. How could you resist?” No, thank you. I can resist. For me, frugality and a frugal mindset curbs my desire. It makes me aware of the tradeoffs of ownership. And I ask myself, “Do I really need this? Could someone else have a better use for it? What are the downsides to owning this?”
5. One of the worst consequences that can result from freeganism is the devaluing of items. I know, this sounds a bit ironic. But just think about it. When you have to pay for an item, you might value it more and treat it with more care. When you feel that there are plenty more of something around every corner, you might see that item as disposable or easily replaceable. After all, you spent no money obtaining it, and can just as easily find another. “If it turns out that I don’t like it, or it does not fit, or I find a better one, I’ll just throw this one back into the trash,” said one freegan.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Yes, we are a wasteful society. We buy things we don’t need, then discard them after we find something else better or newer to consume. And worst of all, we are messing up our environment as a result. This needs to change.
Ideally, we should aim to be less wasteful rather than rely on other methods for salvaging our waste – whether it be through freegans, karung gunis, other scavengers, or technology. Reducing consumption at the source can make a much greater impact than trying to recover a discarded item. As the saying goes, don’t get too busy with mopping the floor; turn the faucet off first.
In the States, in-kind (non-cash) donations of used goods are given a small tax deduction, which encourages people to pass on their items instead of discarding them. This is in part why just about every town in the States, no matter how small, has thrift shops. This policy helps to extend a product’s life cycle, effectively matching the needs of a person to the best use of a particular item. Perhaps we could adopt a policy that incentivises people to donate their items to charity rather than tossing them in the dumpster. For a list of places that accept donations, please click here.
Lastly, I want to conclude by saying that nothing is truly free. Let me repeat that. Nothing is free.
Although you’ll see that word a lot on this site, I actually dislike the word “free”, and only resort to using it because of convention.
I do, however, like the word “complimentary”. Always remember that everything you find, receive, or obtain even without money has been paid for by someone else. Someone had to mine, grow, procure, harvest, assemble, produce, transport, package, and display it before it ever got to you. And when it reaches you, it comes “with compliments”. There is really nothing in this world that doesn’t have a cost – whether it be raw materials, energy, money, or your health, integrity, and time.