Freeganism and how it may ultimately end up saving our planet


Zubin D’Souza

I was having a tough day at work, the restaurant was full, one of my chefs had to rush home because his wife was in labour with their first child; another had the flu and had to be sent home and a third had lopped off the tip of her finger and I had to send her with my deputy to the hospital.

The orders kept pouring in, tempers were fraying and my voice was growing louder and louder and the peppering of choicest abuses in my sentences kept increasing.

It was five in the evening, lunch service and cleanup was over and I realised that I hadn’t eaten the entire day. I filled up a plate with some food and sat by the restaurant window lost in my own thoughts. The butcher had not yet come in and I would have to call and check on him; the fruit supplier brought me red apples instead of the requested green and my deputy was not yet back from the hospital leaving me to fear that the accident was worse than I thought.

“Excuse me”, my thoughts were interrupted by the sweetest voice imaginable “but are you going to eat the whole thing?”

I looked up to find the source of the voice and was confronted by the biggest, meanest looking guy I had ever seen in my life. He was extremely well dressed in a smart but somewhere outdated suit which got me confused. I did not know if it was extortion or a stick-up or just a polite enquiry.

I guessed the guy sensed the cogs turning in my head and continued in a voice that dripped honey with every syllable “Oh, please don’t be alarmed, I am a freegan and I wanted to know if you are going to waste any of that fine food. If you were, I am content to wait as long as required for you to enjoy your meal and then I would clean out the plate for you.”

Freegan! I know I had heard that term before. I just couldn’t place it. I couldn’t remember whether it was associated with a gang or a cult.

“Would you like me to explain that to you?” The voice had returned! “I would do so in exchange for some fries from your plate”. My interest was piqued and in a flash the huge troglodyte was opposite me, resting his massive frame comfortably on the combined width of two chairs.

He probed my plate with his massive fingers for fries, swiped a couple of pieces of cottage cheese that he thought I wouldn’t miss, gingerly allowed his fingers to wade through my bowl of sauce and by this time, I had lost my appetite and slid my entire plate across to him which he attacked with a gusto.

He leaned back on his chair; he looked visibly satisfied and at the end of his explanation, I was really glad that I had let him eat my meal. Freeganism is a culture and a way of life. The word is an amalgamation of ‘free’ and ‘vegan’ and was a movement that started around the mid nineties.

It began for two primary reasons – the first was economic with several people facing tough times in a slowing economy and the second was care for the environment. It soon developed into a larger platform where concerns for the environment, anti-consumerism and development of a collective conscience came into play. Freegans do not believe in wasting stuff and want to reduce their carbon footprint in the world.

“In fact” my newfound educator continued “we do not believe in paying for anything”. I thought that he sounded very much like my ex-wife but then I realised that there was so much more than my shallow assumptions.

Freegans are normally reviled in polite company because they have no compunctions about jumping into garbage bins behind supermarkets where food which is perfectly usable but has reached its ‘best before’ date has been tossed. They scrounge in dumpsters near bakeries where day old produce is thrown out when unsold. They scour fruit markets for the stuff that falls off from the back of trucks or the fruit that did not make the grade in cosmetic appearances that are so important to supermarket chains.

It takes a lot of guts (and some detractors may call it shamelessness) to approach random strangers and ask if they can take the leftovers from their restaurant plates. What we refer to as ‘sifting through garbage’ is what they refer to as ‘urban foraging’. Waste not, want not seems to be their motto and it is starting to make a lot of sense.

Freegans also have learnt to share in ways we cannot imagine. They hold markets where stuff is given away for free; they cook food in communities and share their foraged food with those who want them and they have several free classes to teach others to be successful in what they do.

They are in no sense ‘weird’ but care deeply for the world and the environment.

Their conscience does not just stop at food. They rescue equipment in need of minor repairs and give them away; they mend discarded clothes in order to reduce production. And as I looked at the ugly brute across from me at the table, I marvelled how he seemed to be at peace. In a world where we continuously have summits and inaction when it comes to the environment, he and his ilk seem to have found the most practical way forward.