Comment: The incalculable - and incredibly arrogant - waste of our lifestyle, driven by "our" monetary system, has led to a natural reaction and rejection... why not make a good living from the stupidity of the system!
Dumpster diving with the freegans: Why pay for food?
Last Updated: 7:52am BST 21/07/2008
James Hall is amazed at all the goodies on offer as he joins anti-consumerist activists in 'dumpster diving'
Sleep is cheap for Dave Hamilton. That's because the Bristolian paid almost nothing for his king-sized wooden bed. Mr Hamilton salvaged the bed frame from a skip.
The mattress came from Freecycle.org, a free online exchange site. All he paid for were the screws to put it together. "The entire bed cost me less than £3," he boasts.
Dave and his identical twin brother Andy are a new breed of ethical consumer, often referred to as freegans. Everything that freegans "consume" - food, clothing, furniture - is scavenged, swapped or donated by like-minded people.
Anti-consumerist movements like freeganism are growing in the UK. Websites such as Freecycle.org, Swapstyle.com, and Selfsufficientish.com, which the Hamilton brothers run, have experienced a steady increase in traffic over recent months.
Existing freegans say that people are joining their ranks by the week. But these are not dippy hippies or trampy hobos. They are educated people who have decided to seek an alternative way of life outside the economic norms.
Earlier this month Prime Minister Gordon Brown complained that Britons throw out £10bn of food each year. This includes 7m slices of bread and 4.4m apples each day.
At the same time, the credit crisis is squeezing family budgets while food prices rocket. Taken together, these factors explain why movements like freeganism are gaining traction.
"Quite a number of freegans have climbed out of the woodwork, especially over the last few months with so many issues (credit crisis, global food prices soaring, food shortages predicted) coming to the fray," explains "JD", a member of the UK freegan movement.
The mainstream is starting to take note of this. Andy and Dave Hamilton have recently had a book published by Hodder & Stoughton and there are whispers of a TV series in the pipeline.
Freeganism is a way of living and its proponents practice it in different ways. Dave Hamilton, who describes himself as an "aspiring freegan", explains: "It is about doing what you can. It is about having the smallest impact and living as cheaply as possible, whether you live on a council house or on acres of land. I have met a lot more freegans over the last few months."
The Hamiltons often forage for food with other "free economy" people in Bristol. For example the Leigh Woods near the city yield abundant berries and fruit.
A freegan called Alf is driving around Ireland in his camper van, which runs on waste vegetable oil, when I catch up with him. Alf, who declined to give his surname, has been a freegan since he quit his job as an account executive at a London marketing design company in 1999. Alf studied experimental psychology at New College, Oxford. He is resolutely middle-class and loves the freegan lifestyle.
"I felt that I was being paid to manipulate people [in the marketing job] and create products that didn't really exist. So I just thought 'I am going to take some breathing space'," he says.
Alf says that his only cash expenses are insurance for his camper van (which is also his home) and his mobile phone bill. He estimates that he has cut his living expenses by 90pc. "We live from gifts rather than wages. I know that sounds simplistic. But if you do work and don't demand payment there is a spontaneous collective enthusiasm that occurs," he explains.
He and fellow freegans share resources ("apart from underwear and toothbrushes"). Being a freegan is about reassessing needs, bartering, sharing and clamping down on wastage, says Alf. "The amount of food we find round the back of supermarkets is colossal. One time I found a whole bin bag of cider. Friends found 150 frozen chickens, steaks and cheeses."
The most common way of gathering food is by 'dumpster diving'; literally foraging though skips.
Susan and Roland Gianstefani are veteran freegans of 20 years' standing. They feed themselves (and their 13-year-old son) by foraging in supermarket bins.
The Gianstefanis adopted the freegan lifestyle for religious, rather than purely economic, reasons, but they are masters of the art. I watch them forage behind a frozen food supermarket on London's Walworth Road. Their cream camper van, which also runs on waste vegetable oil, acts as a shield from prying eyes at the mouth of the loading bay.
As a rule, Marks & Spencer bins provide the gold standard for dumpster diving.
Thursday nights are the best, as that is when M&S apparently bins the most grub (some of which it covers in blue dye to stop bin-divers).
But on a warm Tuesday night in south-east London, any skip will do.
In the frozen food supermarket's bay are 10 blue dumpsters. The amount of food that has been thrown out is immense. In one skip there are at least 30 sliced Kingsmill loaves, within their sell-by date and with packaging intact (0.00085pc of Mr Brown's 7m wasted daily slices).
"Look at this. It still surprises me and shocks me," says Mr Gianstefani.
Mrs Gianstefani suggests that beggars can be choosers. "We are very fussy when it comes to bread. We like wholemeal and organic," she says.
The couple only take a small amount of food on this occasion, leaving the vast majority for other divers.
From this visit they take: two packets of cauliflower, carrots and broccoli, two litres of milk (with four days to go before the sell-by date), a four-pack of chicken and vegetable Cup-a-Soup, two apples, two packets of potatoes, Heinz tomato ketchup, two packets of Muller fromage frais, one packet of red and one packet of green grapes, one punnet of strawberries, one whipped cream canister ("delicious on the strawberries"), five Pepperamis and a box of mushrooms.
The cost of this food in the shop would be around £25, I estimate.
The Gianstefanis say that this is nothing - they once found a bin full of fresh, chilled Canadian lobster outside an M&S. "We had a party," Mrs Gianstefani says.
The couple's cash outlay each year is less than £2,000 and much of that goes on van maintenance.
Mr Gianstefani says that everyone should try freegansim. "We are all responsible. It would be good if Gordon Brown did some bin raiding," he says, adding that his lifestyle makes him feel "like an adventurer on a permanent camping trip".
Back in Ireland, Alf agrees. "More and more people are beginning to wake up.
"We are living on borrowed time and about to pay the consequences for long-term taking.
"Look at the papers. They are dominated by the credit crisis and the global food crisis and concerns over the environment, this is major stuff occurring," he says.
"People everywhere are beginning to prick up their ears and think in the way that freegans think."