One-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools or 4,081 tonnes – that’s how much edible food Malaysians dumped last year. This number is part of the total 38,219 tonnes of solid waste generated in Malaysia every day in 2021.
To put it simply, about 10% of the garbage we throw out every day is food that can still be eaten.
And that simple fact forms the basis of a rather unique zero-waste movement: freeganism. Freeganism is still in its infancy here in Malaysia, but there is a growing and dedicated community.
Why not delve deeper into the concept of freeganism, discovering why it encompasses much more than mere ‘freeloading’ or ‘dumpster diving’?”
What Is Freeganism?
Although the idea of rummaging through trash heaps is utterly unappealing to most people, some people see dumpster diving not as a means of getting free stuff but as a way to cut down on unnecessary food wastage.
These people are part of an ecological movement known as “freeganism” – a portmanteau of the terms “free” and “veganism” – which involves recovering waste items discarded in the evening from the garbage cans and dumpsters left outside supermarkets, grocery stores, bakeries, fast-food outlets and other businesses selling food.
While the idea sounds revolting, the foods that freegans rescue from supermarket dumpsters are often full of foodstuffs still sealed in their packaging and just past their use-by dates. In other words, they’re still intact and still perfectly edible.
In most cases, freegans will happily take perfectly edible but unsold foods from restaurants or bakeries which would otherwise be unceremoniously thrown into the bin. These include fruits and vegetables that are still fresh and edible but thrown away because they are oddly shaped, discoloured or have some other quality that made them unattractive to buyers.
But it’s not just food that freegans save from the trash; clothes, furniture, dinnerware and even electronics are some of the other stuff that freegans salvage from the dumpsters.
Freeganism truly exemplifies the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.
Beyond Just Free Meals
Freeganism is more than just about scoring free meals; it is a way of reducing both unnecessary food wastage and spending. Some freegans take this even further by adopting an anti-capitalist and pro-self-sufficiency stance. For them, freeganism is all about taking action to protect the environment and the desire to break away from the all-powerful chains of the food industry – by salvaging what they consider fit for the trash!
Rather than creating demand for new products and trying to reduce packaging, why not consume existing items that would have been thrown away if not diverted from the bin? – Xin Yi, a freegan
Besides dumpster diving, freeganism can also take the form of urban guerrilla gardening: converting abandoned lots into community garden plots. Often, freegans see the development of community gardens in obscure environments and low-income neighbourhoods as offering a resource of healthy produce for the community.
Many freegans also believe that society relies too much on oil and, thus, aims to reduce its carbon footprint. While some freegans convert cars to run on biodiesel, most consider this to be too expensive. These freegans instead walk or bike where possible and will even carpool or hitchhike if need be.
We Asked The Freegans Themselves
We spoke to Karen-Michaela Tan, 48, founder and owner of Write Pix Unlimited, and a member of the Freegan group ‘Giving & Taking Free Stuff,’ to gain a more in-depth view of the freeganism movement.
WI: What got you into the freeganism movement?
Karen: I realised I was a consummate purchaser. I was very fond of pretty things and would acquire more than I would need: kitchenware, dining ware, clothes, specifically. It was when I was invited by a friend to join a freecycling site called Buy Nothing Project that I also discovered the world of freeganism.
Freeganism is the veganism of vegetarianism if it makes sense. While freecycling is about divesting things you do not need in the hopes the items can be reused or repurposed, freeganism is based on the concept of asking and acquiring for no charge all or most of the things one needs to live. It’s not just asking for a pretty vase that catches your eye, but asking for staples including food, bedding, and clothes.
WI: What is your motivation to be a freegan?
Karen: I don’t think I will ever be a true freegan. There are things that I still want that cannot be fully sourced all the time for free. But I think being a freecycler really makes one rethink consumption patterns, and helps suppress the urge to buy or hoard. I freecycle because I want to make optimum use of items I already have and not be driven by consumer greed to buy fad gadgets and fast fashion.
WI: How did going freegan benefit you?
Karen: It has helped me cut back on spending unnecessarily on items I do not need but only want. It has helped me do more with the things I already have, and to appreciate the multiple uses of one thing. For example, I have an electric pressure cooker and I use that to cook rice so I do not need a rice cooker. I also use the pressure cooker for soup, negating the need for a big pot. I can also stir fry in the pressure cooker so I do not need a stove or saucepan.
WI: How much did you save after going freegan?
Karen: I do not have a dollar value but I think my impulse purchases have dropped at least 60% after I became more aware of freecycling and living a freegan life.
The Risks Of Free Stuff
Unsurprisingly, one must be prepared for risks when going freegan. Chief among these are health risks associated with dumpster diving. Rummaging through the garbage of retailers, residences, offices, and food facilities can lead to food poisoning and other health issues.
To protect themselves, many freegans will often check the temperatures of food, wear gloves, and target produce discarded in sealed packages.
Although many freegans claim they’ve never gotten sick from properly cleaned and cooked scavenged food, it is still a gamble as bacterial contamination, the cause of most food-borne illnesses, can happen at any point: at harvest, during shipping or — surprise — while sitting in a dumpster.
Another great risk is getting arrested.
While dumpster diving is not necessarily illegal, it can be considered trespassing or stealing if you take stuff from the wrong place. In general, anything that has not been put into the green public bins or dumpsters is considered fair game. Taking anything from the public dumpsters is considered stealing government property, which can land you in big trouble.
Freeganism isn’t suitable for everyone; it requires making sacrifices. But once you embrace it, you not only contribute to the fight against food waste in the country but also save significantly on your budget by foraging for food and essentials among the discarded items.
Feel Like Going Freegan?
Karen gave some tips for the burgeoning freegan amongst us:
- Start by assessing what your real needs are. Do you really need a set of 8 knives? One good knife can actually cut meat, debone a chicken, fillet a fish and cut fruit. There is no real need for more than one or two knives.
- Look into your cupboards. What have you not used at least weekly in the space of a year? Those things are not necessary.
- Try to divest or trade them for something you really need. Look for quality over quantity. One stainless steel pan is longer wearing than a non-stick one which will lose its coating and become toxic to you.
- When it comes to foodstuff, only buy what you really need. Don’t give in to food promotions and offers in the grocery stores.
- Grow what vegetables you can.
- Clothing-wise, consider swap meets or patronise bundles or thrift shops. Some bundle shops like JBR Bundle in Subang actually have a case of free shoes to give away simply because they are pigskin-lined. If you are lucky and non-Muslim, you could get great quality free shoes there!
Fellow group member, Prem Kumar, 59, had this to say:
Nothing to be shy about. It’s not about being a cheapo but you are saving the world and your pocket. – Prem Kumar
Check out Olio if you want to find a community of people giving out stuff they don’t need for free.
Explore our sources:
- Y. Meikeng. (2022). M’sians continue to waste food. The Star. Link.
- Freegans: Salvaging foodstuff from dumpsters to combat food waste. (2020). The Star. Link.
- Meet a freegan in Singapore! (n.d.). The Sustainable Seafood Project. Link.
- D. Liberto. (updated 2022). Freeganism: Overview, History, Practices. Investopedia. Link.
- S. Dowdey. (n.d.). How Freegans Work. How Stuff Works. Link.