How To Fix All That Food Waste

A new book explores how dumpster diving went from gross prank to progressive movement

Freegan rifles through Dumpster outside Au Bon Pain, 2006 (Getty Images)

Remember freegans, a.k.a. Dumpster divers? You might not. It’s been a long eight years since Oprah did her big freegan episode, sitting down with some newlyweds in the movement to talk about escaping consumer culture and sending Lisa Ling on a trash tour in New York City to show viewers all the edible muffins, broccoli, milk, bagels, and more that’s wasted in one day. This was the peak of freegan popularity in American culture, but some would say it spurred the more recent movement toward food-waste prevention.

Freegans were a bit more radical than what’s being proffered now, though, saying not “use what you consume better” but “question why so much is being produced that you could live well on garbage.” Alex V. Barnard, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley, spent years researching the movement for his recently released book, Freegans: Diving Into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. He was introduced to Dumpster diving through his involvement in the animal rights world; he’s vegan, “though not a level 10,” he says.

“The first time I heard the word [freegan] used...I asked myself, ‘OK, what does that even mean? I have never heard this word,’” Barnard tells me. (The New Food Economy points out that the word started as a joke.) “I looked it up and I realized that freeganism is essentially an extension of the logic of veganism. If veganism is the idea that the production of animal products is exploitation so you should stop consuming animal products, freeganism basically says, ‘If you think the production of any food or any good in a capitalist system is exploitative, you should try and stop consuming.’ Given that we need to eat, the best solution is to rescue food from the trash.”

In the book, Barnard examines the freegan movement in the context of a country that wastes 40% of its food while allowing for the existence of 17.6 million food insecure households. He doesn’t want to overstate freeganism’s influence, but “can say that in 2007, when I started researching the freegans, they were really the only group talking about food waste, even within the food movement.” In the age of Dan Barber’s wastED effort and artisanal vegan mayo made from hummus byproducts (seriously), that is no longer the case.

Unlike the current food-waste movement, freegans were attempting to draw attention to the problems with capitalist overproduction and globalized trade—in this, they proved less successful. “I don't want to wax too Marxist here, but there is the dynamic of capitalism that it takes people’s ethics and good intentions and repackages them as commodities to make a profit,” Barnard says. “Food waste has become about this one thingnot wasting foodwithout considering whether that's really contributing to the bigger changes in the food system. For example, if all you care about is food waste, you should probably put plastic packaging around everything; plastic packaging is a great way to avoid food waste. But is that really the direction we want to take our food system?” (Note: In a recent interview with the New Food Economy, Barnard tucks into a plastic-wrapped, scavenged sandwich.)

The food waste movement would probably do well to look back to the freegans, no matter how much of a punchline they may now be, to find some inspiration and prove more effective in changing agribusiness as a whole. “Unfortunately, for me, what's really been lost as the food waste movement has moved to the mainstream—which in a lot of ways is a good thing—is some of that critique,” Barnard explains further. “We're losing sight of how food waste is bound up with a capitalist agricultural system that is based on growth rather than feeding people.”

Barnard’s book (and those old Oprah clips) are certainly a good place to start.

via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

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Bans on plastic bags and straws can only go so far. Using disposable products, like grabbing a plastic fork when you're on the go, can be incredibly convenient. But these items also contribute to our growing plastic problem.

Fortunately, you can cut down on the amount of waste you produce by cutting down on disposable products. And even more fortunately, there are sustainable (and cute) replacements that won't damage the environment.

Coconut bowls


Who says sustainable can't also be stylish? These cute coconut bowls were handmade using reclaimed coconuts, making each piece one of a kind. Not only are they organic and biodegradable, but they're also durable, in case your dinner parties tend to get out of hand. The matching ebony wood spoons were polished with the same coconut oil as the bowls.

Cocostation Set of 2 Vietnamese Coconut Bowls and Spoons, $14.99; at Amazon

Solar powered phone charger


Why spend time looking around for an outlet when you can just harness the power of the sun? This solar powered phone charger will make sure your phone never dies as long as you can bask in the sun's rays. As an added bonus, this charger was made using eco-friendly silicone rubber. It's win-win all around.

Dizaul Solar Charger, 5000mAh Portable Solar Power Bank, $19.95; at Amazon, $19.95; at Amazon

Herb garden kit

Planter Pro

Put some green in your life with this herb planter. The kit comes with everything you need to get a garden growing, including a moisture meter that helps you determine if your herbs are getting the right amount of food to flourish. All the seeds included are certified to be non-GMO and non-hybrids, meaning you can have fresh, organic herbs right at your fingertips.

Planter Pro's Herb Garden Cedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazonedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazon

Reusable Keurig cups

K & J

Keurig cups are convenient, but they also create a ton of plastic waste. These Keurig-compatible plastic cups are an easy way to cut down on the amount of trash you create without cutting down on your caffeine. Additionally, you won't have to keep on buying K Cups, which means you'll be saving money and the environment.

K&J Reusable Filter Cups, $8.95 for a set of 4,; at Amazon

Low-flow shower head


Low-flow water fixtures can cut down your water consumption, which saves you money while also saving one of the Earth's resources. This shower head was designed with a lighter flow in mind, which means you'll be able to cut down on water usage without feeling like you're cutting down on your shower.

Speakman Low Flow Shower Head, $14.58; at Amazon

Bamboo safety razor


Instead of throwing away a disposable razor every time you shave, invest in an eco-friendly, reusable one. This unisex shaver isn't just sustainable, it's also sharp-looking, which means it would make a great gift for the holidays.

Zomchi Safety Razor, $16.99; at Amazon

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