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Saving the world, one Dumpster at a time

Marketing professor Hieu Nguyen experimented with Dumpster diving with freegans as part of his research.

Marketing professor Hieu Nguyen experimented with Dumpster diving with freegans as part of his research.

Catherine Nguyen | Daily 49er

Catherine Nguyen | Daily 49er

Marketing professor Hieu Nguyen experimented with Dumpster diving with freegans as part of his research.

Catherine Nguyen, Contributing Writer

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By day, they are average Americans. They have careers. They have families. They have homes. By night, they are crusaders against the capitalist society with one objective in mind — to live in complete withdrawal from the marketplace. They wear clothes from Salvation Army. They dig in trash for food. They are the growing wave of anti-consumerism activists. They are freegans.

Hieu Nguyen, marketing professor at Cal State Long Beach, said he first read about freegans in the November 2008 issue of Fortune magazine. A high-profile woman, or “big wig” as he prefers to call it, left her position with a six-figure salary on Wall Street for the “Dumpster diving” freegan lifestyle. Nguyen was intrigued. 

“This is a highly educated individual who is eating out of the trash,” he said. 

A research project with fellow CSULB marketing colleague Sayantani Mukherjee and Cal State Fullerton marketing professor Steven Chen soon began. Nguyen swapped his usual freshly pressed pants and dress shirt for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and followed the example of other freegans. 


Free dining

“Blueberries! Strawberries! Goat cheese! Wheat bread!” Nguyen laughed. “It’s so exciting when you find something and,” he paused, “it’s all free.” Hence the term freegans — a combination of “free” and “vegan.” 

As best explained on freegan.info, vegans are people who abstain from products made from animal sources in order to avoid harming animals, and freegans take a step further by recognizing that, in a mass-production economy driven by profit, there is abuse of humans, animals and earth at all levels of production and in every product bought. “Everything about freeganism is free,” Nguyen said. “It’s a movement — a strong political movement.”


The origins of the freegan lifestyle

The freeganism movement had roots starting in the mid-1960s, which was preceded by the Diggers, an anarchist street theater group that gave away salvaged food and social services in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The movement spread across the nation, with large chapters in many cities, including Los Angeles and New York City. 

“The freegans’ ultimate goal is to have complete withdrawal from consumption society,” Nguyen said. “They feel our society has become a consumption society. They feel we are stripping away nonrenewable resources from the earth and if we continue to live the way we do now, there will be nothing left for the generations to come.” 

Freegans operate on basic principles: Waste reclamation, waste minimization, eco-friendly transportation, rent-free housing, going green and working less.

Waste reclamation can best be observed through “Dumpster diving,” which freegan.info describes as rummaging through the garbage of retailers, residences, offices and other facilities for useful goods. The goods recovered are clean, safe and reusable and become a testament of the unnecessary waste produced by a society that condones the constant replacement of goods. 

“One of the goals for a lot of freegans is voluntary joblessness,” Nguyen said. “They want to squat with someone that has an apartment. For food, they would go to Dumpsters. For clothes, they would go to Salvation Army. It’s to the point where they don’t need a lot of money for survival and, since they don’t need a lot of money, they don’t need a job. Instead, they would volunteer their time to help the community.” 


Freeganism: Making the choice

Nguyen characterized the average freegan as strikingly intellectual, though the label doesn’t necessarily come attached with a college degree. 

“There was this girl; her name was Grace,” he said. “She called herself ‘Dumpster Kitty.’ She was 21 and never went to college, she had only finished high school … but when I spoke to her, she sounded extremely smart … Very well-spoken, very well-traveled and extremely aware.

“A lot of people I’ve talked to had regular jobs: Computer programmer, high school teacher. Some of them were highly educated and they all had a common mentality,” he added. “They’re happy because they’re not part of this meat grinder society. They feel like they’re not enslaved by corporate America. They’re happy not to have to go to a restaurant for a meal and not have to buy new clothes … that’s happiness to them.”

Not everyone can easily become a freegan. Janet, an advocate of the freeganism movement in New York whom Nguyen met during his research, said she dealt with persecution firsthand. Janet is a local high school teacher and, when students found out about her freegan lifestyle, many of the students didn’t let it rest easy. Janet said several students often referred to her as a “crazy woman” who likes to “eat trash.” 


Reactions from the community

CSULB fashion design and merchandising major Sarah Park couldn’t disagree more with the lifestyle. 

“I find freegans to be extremists,” she said. “No matter how careful they may be, there are always chemicals, etc. in those Dumpsters … even fumes that could potentially reach the food. People throw away things that don’t even belong in the trash: Biohazards, toxic waste. No matter how careful you may be, you can’t hold others accountable.” 

International business and marketing major Mustafa Hakami offered another viewpoint. He said: “Their intentions are in a good place. They’re trying to positively influence the community to better the lives of our nation’s future generations. We need more stances like that.” 


The future of Dumpster diving

Nguyen said many have adopted the lifestyle because of acquaintances and friends. Once they accept the lifestyle, freegans must go through some type of spiritual cleansing. 

“Grace had to let go of her precious CD collection she had since high school and she was really distraught because of the memories,” Nguyen said. “But, being a freegan, she had to think, ‘Why does she need these CDs?’ Things they absolutely don’t need, they let go.”

Nguyen has Dumpster dived in Pasadena and in parts of New York for his research. Nguyen and his collaborators hope to achieve publication in an academic journal by next fall.

An online forum with the location of monthly meet-ups, where freegans can unite to Dumpster dive together and end with a celebratory cookout or film screening, is available at meetup.com. 

Some may deem them crazy. Some may never really understand. They don’t let it affect them.

“If people challenge them, then they’re very proud of it,” Nguyen said. “People can be verbally abusive but they don’t care. They’re doing something much loftier … and verbal abuse is just a minor thing.”

Tips on how to eat from a Dumpster

1. Use common sense. 

2. Frozen meat in sealed packages is good. If the sealed packages are warm and/or have bubbled, don’t eat it. If there are any types of raw fish or seafood, don’t eat it.

3. Moldy cheese can be scraped off, and besides, aged cheese is good. Goat cheese is considered gold in the “Dumpster diving” world.

4. Fruits and produce just needs to be checked over once. And don’t just toss the bruised ones aside. Bruised bananas can still be baked into banana bread.

5. Many products get tossed out before the expiration date. For example, egg cartons are usually tossed out the day before its expiration as cereal boxes are tossed a month before.

6. Aim for Dumpster from high-end or organic grocery stores, like Trader Joe’s or Mother’s Market

7. Be willing to share. Selflessness is considered a virtue in freeganism.  

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