Dumpster Dining: For Freegans, Eating Garbage Is Getting Downright Trendy

On a Wednesday night, four people are gathering boxes of vegetables from a dumpster behind an organic foods market near Scottsdale. The scavengers — four 20-somethings known as John Greentree, Ghost, Dee Dee, and Mr. Pink — have dumpster-dived here numerous times before. They've already put several boxes in the van when somebody sees approaching headlights.

"It's security," Mr. Pink says.

Despite the fact that these four have been on dozens of similar escapades over the past five years, nobody has ever discussed what to do if they get caught. So as the security officer drives up to the dumpster in a golf cart, everybody does the first thing their instincts tell them to do: run.

In what looks like a Chinese fire drill on fast-forward, Mr. Pink and Greentree, both dressed in dark, baggy jeans, sprint a full circle around the van to avoid being seen by the guard and then swiftly leap in the front doors. As the security guard pulls to the rear of the van, the smallest of this ragtag group of neo-hippies, 5-foot-tall Dee Dee, is caught walking out of the dumpster area.

The security guard, a heavy-set female, says hi to Dee Dee. Dee Dee nervously says hello back. Then the security guard asks, "Can you do me a favor?"

No one answers or waits around to hear what the favor is. Ghost, who's been stuck in the dumpster since security pulled up, suddenly comes tearing through the gate as if he's on fire. He takes a flying leap and propels himself six feet through the air and into the back of the van, clearing 10 big boxes of food. Dee Dee's right behind him. Within seconds, everybody's in the van, and Mr. Pink's burning rubber out of the shopping plaza.

"Ghost, that dive into the van was awesome," Greentree says.

"I felt so epic!" Ghost says.

"I wonder what the favor was that she wanted?" Dee Dee asks.

"I don't know. I think next time, we should talk to her," Greentree says.

"Should we even come back here?" Mr. Pink asks. "I mean, do you think there'll be a next time?"

Oh, there'll be a next time.

John Greentree is homeless by choice. His family lives in Phoenix, and he's apparently always welcome to sleep at his parents' home. Sometimes he does, but most of the time, he couch-hops at friends' houses or sleeps outside. He doesn't have what you'd call a job. It's all part of his utopian vision of a post-consumer society.

Greentree's what many would call a "freegan" — a vegan who dumpster-dives for his meals — but he prefers the terms "post-consumer," "urban harvester," and "vegan reclamist." Everything he eats or owns is second-hand. He manages to live virtually money-free, but modern-day hunting and gathering is practically a full-time job. And for an anarchistic pursuit, it's getting more organized all the time; in the past three months, the growing freegan community has been organizing group dumpster dives across the Valley.

It's not just food — freegans salvage everything from furniture to electronics, sometimes fixing up and reselling their finds. At one time, Greentree was renting an apartment, and he says he made enough money to pay his rent — $420 a month — simply by salvaging paints and canvases from dumpsters and selling his creations downtown. Once, he found a guitar in the garbage. "The only thing wrong with it was it had two broken strings," he says. "So I replaced the strings, painted the guitar, and sold it for $350."

And it's not just hippie types like Greentree.

The freegan lifestyle has appeal, especially during an economic downturn. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 96 billion pounds of edible food is disposed of in the United States every year. Much of that food — particularly the vegetables, fruits, breads, rice, and pasta that freegans seek — is still a week or more away from spoilage. The Phoenix freegans say they eat like kings and queens, collectively hauling in pounds of salvaged food and cooking weekly community meals.

The abundance of waste from organic and whole foods stores across the Valley, coupled with the fix-and-find economic opportunities, has led to a surge in local dumpster diving. Local police agencies say they haven't seen a huge increase in complaints, but some store­owners have beefed up security patrols.

Freegans are taking newbies along on dives and teaching them how to do what they've done for years, and people are interested in it. One of the largest groups in Phoenix on the Web site meetup.com is for dumpster diving, with 108 people interested in the topic. Across Phoenix, more people have started shopping at "D-Mart," but as more people pile on the trash-picking bandwagon, the whole thing threatens to collapse. Storeowners have taken notice, increasing security patrols, using more locks, and even installing alarm systems on their garbage bins.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea