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February 11, 2009 - Image 12

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2009-02-11

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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magine coming home to a dozen bouquets of
flowers. They are so numerous that it was nec-
essary to use cups, tomato sauce jars and beer
bottles as makeshift vases. Then your lover tells you
a dirty secret - these flowers are, in fact, dumpster
flowers. And you fall even more in love.
These are the life and times - and treasures - of
a freegan.
The title of "queen diver" would seem to belong
to some pool high-dive champion. But in the case of
one campus co-op house, the title refers to Cat, the
house's top dumpster diver. I spoke with Cat in her
kitchen while she prepared dinner for her house-
mates. Well-stocked with grains and produce, the
kitchen centered around a wooden table where her
housemates arranged bouquets of flowers from the
previous night's diving trip. Cat and her housemates
asked that their full names and the name of their
co-op not be used in this article since dumpster div-
ing is illegal.
Regular diving trips are the main source of the
co-opers' freegan lifestyle. Freeganism, a play off of
veganism, is an anti-consumerist philosophy where
practitioners seek to minimize the use of resources
by limiting their reliance on commercial markets.
When it comes to food, this means a diet based largely
on homegrown produce and dumpster loot.
"Our culture is one that wastes a lot of things ... so
we've made a commitment to reduce our consump-
tion that benefits us and our community," Cat said.
At heart, freeganism is about environmentalism
above specific political or economic views. The defin-
ing rule of freeganism is to reduce one's consumption,
especially through diet. As Cat explains it, there are
too many problems with the current agricultural sys-
tem for her to endorse it with her money. Transporta-
tion and packaging adds greatly to the use of energy
and fossil fuels, while packaging contributes equally
to the size of our landfills. On top of that, traditional
farming practices deplete soil of its natural resources
by overplanting, and the lost minerals are replaced by
ecologically damaging petrochemical fertilizers.
It's true that there is a strong economic argument
against freeganism. Grocery shopping helps to sus-
tain the faltering economy, and some studies have
shown that the positive effects of other consumption
philosophies like "eating local" are uncertain. But it's
also true that all around Ann Arbor, items like gour-
met cheese and two-day-old sourdough bread is still
good to be eaten but won't be unless someone claims
it from a dumpster.
Many freegans, including Cat, are also practicing
she doesn't agree with the conventional practices of
raising and slaughtering meat and the overconsump-
tion of meat in the U.S. Conventionally, animals like
cows are raised on grains in confined spaces. Vegans
and vegetarians often have qualms with this because
the practice uses excessive amounts of energy in the
production of grain and raises questions about ani-
mal health and rights and food safety.
When they have to buy food, freegans choose3 to
buy from local sources that preserve the soil, reduce
transportation and promote healthy animal-rearing
practices. But even if food has been shipped across
the country, they feel it's economically and environ-
mentally all right to dive for it after it has been dis-

If attending an event with free food, most freegans
won't accept a meal unless they know it's been con-
scientiously grown or produced. If they visita friend
who's prepared a meal from Meijer, though, freegans
are likely to indulge.
As our conversation came to aclose, Cat invited me
on my first diving trip: "I'll give you some gloves and
a head lamp and you can jump in with me." The date
was set for the following evening.
Before I left after the interview, a housemate
handed me avelvet red rose plucked fromthe house's
dumpster garden. Instead of the rose's usual roman-
tic suggestion, it was clear this flower expressed a
love for the environment. I walked home in high spir-
its, imagining what kind of souvenir I would find on
my trip.
Around midnight last Sunday, Cat and I recovered
several plastic milk crates from the snow in front of
the co-op and piled into her car with two other divers.
When we arrived at a local supermarket, we noticed
another car. "We've got competition," a housemate
While waiting for the store's employees to filter.
out, Cat explained diving etiquette. Since diving is
illegal and divers don't want to contact the police in
case of a dispute, they've developed their own deco-
rum to deal with other divers.
As the other car had been waiting longer, they had
first diving dibs. This means that they willbe allowed
to jump in first and will have first dibs over the spoils.
Still, as per freegan law, there is usuallyequal sharing
among the divers.
Secondly, neither car would drive near the dump-
ster until all employees had cleared out. If either
pounced while employees were still clearing out the
store, they would surely be kicked out. But it was also
a matter of respect, Cat explained. Although some
employees may have suspected why the two cars were
there, they had no intention of creating trouble for the
divers unless the looting occurred right in their pres-
ence. Finally, divers must always return the dump-
ster to the condition in which they found it, leaving
no mess or sign of disturbance for the storeowners to
deal with the next day.
After the last car exited and the other divers
jumped in, we made our move. Usingthe hole created
for the dumpster truck's forklift, Cat vaulted herself
into a wonderland of excess. Slowly, bags were lifted
through the hole and passed to those of us waiting
That Cat submerged herself in a dumpster isn't
as filthy as it would seem. The trash bags she rifled
through were filled solely with packaged food items
that had just been picked off the shelves. Packaged
potatoes, netted citrus fruits and paper-wrapped
breads each filled their owngarbage bags. There were
bags of apples, oranges, limes, lettuce, plastic-boxed
strawberries, red currants, cookies and egg cartons
tainted only by some ice cream that had spilled.
Then, two entire garbage bags were devoted to
day-old bread. Another two or three bags to apples
and oranges and two bags to baby red potatoes that
were so heavy I nearly collapsed under the weight.
In one last bag were eight shrink-wrapped blocks of
expensive blue, cheddar and French Raclette cheeses.
The problem with these cheeses wasn't age - it was
only a slight misshapenness that made them unsuit-
able for the grocery's display.

Finally, it was my turn. I donned my headlight and
rubber gloves and took the forklift step into the gro-
cery abyss. I immediately noticed that it wasn't the
eggshell and coffee-grounds-littered receptacle I
imagined. It could almost, bizarrely, be described as
clean. It still stood its ground as a dumpster, though,
as a grimy bottom layer and accompanying odor
became more apparent with the opening and empty-
ing of subsequent bags. After a few minutes of sift-
ing, I decided my efforts would be better put towards
sorting and exited the dumpster.
Rumor has it that diving virgins will find either
chocolate or wine on their first trip. While this first-
timer didn't leave with either aphrodisiac, the four
trash bags full of flowers were a fine substitute. Each
bag contained roughly a dozen plastic-wrapped bou-
quets, which Cat and her housemates plan to distrib-
ute to other co-ops for Valentine's Day.
Since Cat is a strict vegan, she did not pick up the
few packages of Italian sausages that appeared in
some trash bags. She did, however, pick out the eggs
and blocks of cheese for her non-vegan roommates
who might have otherwise contributed to the mass
consumption of these products. .
This illustrates the major difference between veg-
ans and freegans: while neither group will pay for
meat, freegans will consume it if it's been saved from
a dumpster. "If it's going into the dumpster, I will
happily take some meat," said Cat's vegan housemate
Dani. On the other hand, a third roommate, Bran-
don, said that "dumpster meat would be a line that I
wouldn't cross." Either way, all housemates are care-
ful only to take animal products in the winter when
the cold weather will prevent the meat from going
Although some produce looked past its expiration
date, the vast majority of it lacked significant signs of
decay. According to Cat, there were a few reasons for
this - when supermarkets are overstocked or have a
new shipment of food, the excess is bagged and sent
to the dumpster. Brandon added that in the case of

packaged stock, if a jar of peanut butter leaks over
eleven other jars, the entire case is thrown out. Other
products had only just passed their sell-by date but
hadn't yet shown signs of rotting.
In addition to rules of etiquette, the co-op also has
fairly rigid sanitary practices. No loose or open items
like stray bananas or opened boxes of crackers are
brought back to the co-op and everything is sorted for
decay before being stored in the kitchen. The "when
in doubt, throw it out" rule always applies.
Cat needs to uphold these practices to meet her
own safety standards and those of her few room-
mates who are finicky about dumpster food. Because
of these practices, she has helped supply the co-op
with one-third to one-fourth of its weekly food sup-
ply and has never had a case of food poisoning.
The diving queen reasoned that one of the larg-
est deterrents for others is the natural association
of trash with contamination. But she has been able
to turn skeptics onto dumpster meals because of the
quality of food retrieved and the layers of protective
plastic wrapping.
As we left the grocery store with a trunk filled to
the brim, I was content that the company's trash had
been reduced by what seemed like almost a third -
there will be a lot less trash headed to the landfill this
week. The wheel has come full circle: both the free-
gans and their community benefited and that, as my
seventh grade biology teacher taught me, is mutual-
My diving partners asked that I don't reveal the
store we visited so it will be safe for future foraging,
but there are a few tips for novice freegans or anyone
who would like to lower their grocery costs.
Look into a supermarket's delivery cycles. One
supermarket might get new shipments of flow-
ers on Fridays and produce on Mondays - mean-
ing that they'll likely be clearing their shelves in
preparation. This varies across supermarkets, so
you'll have to familiarize yourself with your local

- IV

For a photo and audio
slideshow of the dive, go
to michigandaily.com. i4

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