Freegans forage for food, loathe waste

(MIAMI HERALD)   Shoulder-deep in a Coral Springs commercial trash bin, Brian Sprinkle was feeling hot and sweaty — and lucky.

Dented boxes of spaghetti and containers of croissants, plus potatoes, onions, bananas, plastic-wrapped hunks of watermelon and baby portobello mushrooms were stacked outside the Dumpster, in cardboard boxes he had also found inside.

“This is what happens when you have a consumer society,” Sprinkle said, pausing for a moment between gloveless dives to the bottom of the metal bin.

“Corn in the husk,” said Sprinkle, 25, of Fort Lauderdale. “That’s my favorite.”

Meet the ultimate anti-consumer.

Since a time long before double-digit unemployment, widespread foreclosures and the collective closing of American wallets, a sliver of society has gotten by on the rest of society’s discards. Sprinkle, his friends and thousands of others across the country are freegans, people who eschew capitalism whenever possible and loathe waste.

“Freeganism is kind of a protest, a boycott against a society that is pretty much run on slavery and genocide,” said Brian Mulligan, 22, of Coral Springs. He frequents Dumpsters on his own and with Sprinkle. To avoid contributing to a system he dislikes, he doesn’t work.

Indeed, the freegan movement is a reaction to the modern global economy, said Janet Kalish of New York-based Many freegans believe that nearly everything produced harms the earth or its creatures in some way.

“We’re trying to resist buying and contributing to this system,” she said. “We’re built on overproduction. We have an economy based on destructiveness. For the big machine of our economy to keep on rolling means we have to be exploitive of our planet.”

Freegan practices can vary from Dumpster diving to backyard gardening, Kalish said. And though freegans get their name from a contraction of the words free and vegan, not all are vegetarian, she said.

“We’re just trying to provoke creativity. People can pursue their own way of being apart from the system,” she said. “There are people who squat. Or build their own wigwams. There’s people who manage to live on very little money. I don’t think it matters whether they call themselves freegan or not.”

Ivania Reyes of Pembroke Park doesn’t have a label for her daily trips to the back entrance of grocery stores, where she has become a fixture. She just wanted to figure out a way to help people get by in the mobile home park she manages.

She became friendly with store employees, who now supply her with food that is trash-bin bound.

Sympathetic workers have provided her with birthday cakes, mangoes, brownies, pineapples and watermelons. A recent coup: 86 unopened boxes of Danish she distributed door-to-door in the Lake Shore Mobile Home Community.

“I really enjoy helping people,” said Reyes, 51, who is also motivated to rescue food that would otherwise be thrown out. “I do it to help a lot of people who don’t have jobs. I never did this before” the economy was so bad.

Leftover food is the biggest single component of American trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Americans throw away more than 25 percent of all food prepared — about 96 billion pounds of waste annually.

And the country spends about $1 billion a year to get rid of it.

Reyes said many of the tenants in the mobile home community where she works can barely afford their rent — 47 of the nearly 100 tenants are behind on their payments — and she hopes her contributions of salvaged food will help cut their expenses.

Sprinkle and his friends also pay forward the fruits — and vegetables — of their labor.

They cook their finds into curries, soups and stews that they share Friday afternoons in Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan Park with anyone who cares to join them.

Kalish, Sprinkle and other freegans acknowledge that, at the moment, the waste products of the very capitalist economy they dislike fuel their ability to live the way they do.

“A certain amount of capitalism has to prevail or there won’t be any free stuff or cheap stuff for the rest of us to find,” said Anneli Rufus, 50, who published The Scavenger’s Manifesto with her husband Kristan Lawson, 48, earlier this year.

The pair don’t consider themselves freegans — they pay for medicines, housing, eyeglasses and some of their food. But they abide by their own philosophy of “scavenomics.”

“We like to get whatever free that we can get for free,” Rufus said.

The Berkeley, Calif., residents haven’t bought new clothes in at least five years and grow some of their own food using seeds from fruits and vegetables they’ve eaten or seeds they acquired for free at seed swaps.

“Sometimes all you can do is cut coupons out of the newspaper. Sometimes all you can do is go to yard sales,” Rufus said.

“Some people are in it for the environment. Some people do it to save money. Some people do it for political reasons.”

Snowbird and businessman Russ Erickson, who winters in Key West, spends nearly nothing on his modest life of thrifting and foraging for food. He lives much of the year in his van, gets his clothes from yard sales or second-hand stores and showers at truck stops.

“Everybody’s got too much stuff in their life,” said Erickson, 67, a former contractor who turned bitter about the American consumer lifestyle.

Now, he is co-owner of a doggy daycare business in North Carolina where he works occasionally. But he is more likely to be found waiting outside buffet-style restaurants until the end of the evening to eat what would otherwise be thrown away.

“People are afraid to take chances and live on the fly because they want their creature comforts and stuff like that. They’re spoiled. The whole society is spoiled,” he said.

“My philosophy in life is that less is more. You can be happy with almost nothing.”

Sprinkle said he and his like-minded friends feel the same way.

They find spending time together as fulfilling as others may find shopping.

“We’re not a very materialistic bunch. We don’t have the craving to buy lots of things. Our main goal is to have lots of good food and get together,” he said, although the occasional Dumpster score of discarded books is welcome.

But a lifestyle of finding treasure in others’ trash isn’t the ultimate goal of freeganism, Kalish said.

“A better vision is that we won’t have supermarkets the way we are now. We won’t be Dumpster diving. We will have changed the system so we’re not exploiting people and habitats and animals. We’ll be growing more locally,” she said.

“I would think that we can picture a system where it’s about responsible disposal of things, responsible production of things and making things that are built to work — not built to break.”

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