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

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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.


dumpster diving

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.

So far, Phoenix's freegans have been successful at sustaining themselves on society's waste. But they just may become victims of their own success.

Conspire, a coffee house at Fifth Street and Garfield at the edge of downtown Phoenix, has become the unofficial freegan headquarters. They spend a lot of time in the anarchist library housed in the back of Conspire, and they meet here for weekly open mic nights and dumpster dives.

It's an evening in early July and John Greentree's leaving in a week for Chiapas, Mexico, where he plans to work with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. He's got all his possessions — a few dusty, warped records; a handful of cookbooks and anarchist pamphlets; and a couple of tattered T-shirts — on the "free table" at Conspire for others to take.

Greentree's very friendly. And maybe a little cheesy. This is the guy who wandered around downtown Phoenix during several First Friday art walks wearing a sign that advertised "free hugs." He writes poetry with lines like, "Your physical cupcake feeds my mental belly."

With his closely shorn hair, neatly kept goatee, and big, goofy smile, he hardly looks the part of a homeless anarchist on a mission for revolution.

But that's him. "I'm an anarchist. I believe that if there were no government, the people will realize they have to do things for themselves," he says.

Greentree never earned a college degree but did, he says, study food management at Phoenix College and DeVry University. This, he says, makes him qualified as an "urban harvester" — someone who finds and consumes edible plants and herbs growing wild around the city. At the moment, he's drinking tea he made with some lemongrass he found growing down the street.

After a group dumpster dive, Greentree usually starts cooking a meal. He likes to create recipes around whatever ingredients he has. Once, he says, he made some tasty pasta sauce with recently expired soy milk and mushrooms he found in the trash. He also talks about making pasta out of shredded zucchini.

Though Greentree generally takes charge of cooking post-dive meals, his friend Ghost is known as the post-dive "smoothie master." Ghost is at Conspire tonight, too, walking around in camouflage shorts and smoking whatever cigarettes he can bum.

Ghost is also an anarchist, but unlike Greentree, he's not above breaking the law to live by his own rules. Greentree refuses to be a squatter, but Ghost squats freely wherever he can and always leaves behind the international squatter's symbol: a circle with what looks like the letter "N" cutting through it with an arrow-point on top.

At 22, Ghost considers himself an "old-school punk" and rails against younger people who call themselves such. "I've been a punk for 10 years," he says indignantly, referring to a movement that started 13 years before he was born. 

If Greentree's clean-cut looks help him blend in with "normal" society, than Ghost's appearance makes him stick out like neon graffiti on a Scottsdale mansion. His head's completely shaved except for a few hot pink spikes on the top and both of his eyebrows are pierced multiple times and lined with silver jewelry. He says he wants to go to Mexico with Greentree but can't because he thinks there are probably warrants for his arrest in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Tucson. (Ghost is the only freegan profiled here who refused to give New Times his real name; the rest do not have criminal records. Ghost says he's been arrested in the past for vandalism, trespassing, and not having a proper bike light.)

Unlike a lot of his fellow foragers, Ghost does eat meat. When he finds a piece of meat in a dumpster that he thinks is edible, he boils it and then fries it at extreme temperatures. He's the only local freegan who says he's gotten sick from eating dumpster-dived food — it happened one time, and it was a pork chop.

People have been dumpster diving for decades, but it's only been in the past 10 years that scavenging has started to enter the mainstream. Once considered the domain of the poor and the homeless, garbage picking has become a popular practice, with "how-to" manuals on dumpster diving like Art & Science of Dumpster Diving, Empire of Scrounge, and Dumpster Diving: The Advanced Course (all available on amazon.com) detailing how to be a more effective trash picker.

Depending on how you look at it, perhaps the most successful dumpster diver in American history is Jerry Schneider, who started salvaging instruction manuals and parts from the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company's trash in the 1960s. He used the manuals and parts to establish a profitable company, Creative Systems Enterprises, and lost a lawsuit to Pacific Telephone & Telegraph in 1974. The judgment stated that Schneider had "stolen" equipment valued at more than $214,000.

Another notable dumpster diver is Willie Fulgear, who found 55 stolen Oscars in a dumpster behind a Los Angeles grocery store in March 2000. For the salvaged statues, he received two tickets to the Oscars and a $50,000 reward, which was later stolen from a safe in his apartment.

There are some nefarious figures in the long history of dumpster diving, too. Like convicted abortion clinic and Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, whose writings detail how he survived as a fugitive by raiding dumpsters; he was arrested for the Olympic Park bombing while digging through a trashcan behind a Save-A-Lot store.

And who could forget that Charles Manson was a dumpster diver? Convicted of ordering the murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, in 1969, Manson was a fan of dumpster diving when he formed his "family" in the late 1960s. Almost every meal the Manson Family ate came from trashcans. Manson would send groups of girls to local dumpsters to gather food, which fed 30-35 people every night. He even wrote a song called "Garbage Dump," in which he sings, "You could feed the world with my garbage dump . . . I'll be in dem cans behind my favorite store."

After Greentree, Ghost, Dee Dee, and Mr. Pink took off in the van that night in Scottsdale, they saw the security guard follow them through the parking lot. On the drive back to his house, Mr. Pink wonders aloud whether the guard got his license plate number.

Nothing they can do about it now, everyone figures. Might as well eat.

Back at Mr. Pink's bungalow-style house in central Phoenix, everyone sorts and washes several pounds of pomegranates, strawberries, and oranges. Everything undergoes a basic smell test and gets scrubbed clean. With the exception of several pieces of bruised vegetables and pulpy fruits, the food looks the same as it does on store shelves. The bread and eggs don't even expire for a few more days.

Ghost starts putting fruit into a blender for the first round of smoothies, and commandeers Mr. Pink's CD player to put on a thrash-punk band singing "kill kill kill the FBI" over and over. Then he gets into a debate with Greentree, who thinks conscious consumerism is better than anti-capitalism because people can choose to support mom-and-pop businesses. Ghost's philosophy is that all industries and resources should be collectively owned because everybody would have what they needed.

"If everybody had what they needed, there would be no murder or stealing," he says. "People murder and steal because the government has control of the industries and resources, and people are in need."

Somebody asks Ghost if he doesn't believe that some people are more greedy than needy; people were murdering and stealing from each other long before governments existed. Ghost says that's true but his utopian vision would somehow still work. He believes that people are inherently good.

Except for hipsters. They're just good for a few jokes.

"How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Ghost asks. When nobody answers, he says, "Well, it's a really obscure number. You probably haven't even heard of it."

Greentree does one better: "How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two — one to screw it in, and one to complain about how it looked better in a smaller venue."

Mr. Pink's loading some extra artisan breads back into the van, so he can drop them off at the apartment where the local chapter of Food Not Bombs makes meals for the homeless. Mr. Pink, 29, looks like a blond version of Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo cartoons, though he insists on the nickname Mr. Pink. He's lived in Phoenix all his life and played drums for some local experimental bands. He's one of the few Phoenix freegans who has a vehicle, a house, and a job. He's a delivery driver, and the van — a plain white cargo van — is his work vehicle. He says his employer doesn't know it's being used for dumpster dives.

For a freegan, a vehicle is both a hot commodity and a forbidden evil. Cars and vans are the catalysts of the community, yet they symbolize a wasteful consumer society to them. Most freegans just have bicycles, which work fine for diving meal to meal, but aren't practical for a big haul. But increasingly, freegans are organizing in larger groups, which mean a larger get.

Now, a big haul doesn't really equate with the dumpster diver's cardinal rule of "never take more than you need." But there's always more than they need — an astounding amount, sometimes.

The freegans' answer is to find more people in need. There's no shortage of them, either. But that requires coordination, which anarchists aren't necessarily accustomed to.

In fact, for a scene composed mostly of admitted anarchists, the Phoenix freegans' group dives are incredibly organized. They know which dumpsters to hit on particular nights, what time to go, and who's going to fill what role at the dumpster. Ideally, there are two people inside the bins to gather, two people outside to sort and load, and one to serve as a lookout.

"Lately, we've been breaking that rule. But there's always somebody who can use the food. There's just so much food," Mr. Pink says. "And while I'm fortunate enough to be able to buy food, people like [Greentree] and Ghost, that's the only way they can eat. Dumpster diving is more of a luxury for me. It's hard for me to glorify it. But this is post-consumer. This is waste."

Every Saturday night for the past three months, members of the local chapter of Food Not Bombs have dumpster-dived to gather food for the weekly meals they feed to the homeless at Margaret T. Hance Park, behind Burton-Barr Central Library. They've been trying to get local grocery stores to donate, too, but say they haven't had much luck. Many grocery chains, including Whole Foods, donate food to charities, but those charities must be registered 501(c)(3) organizations — and the Phoenix chapter of Food Not Bombs is not.

Donors are protected by Arizona's Good Samaritan Law, which exempts them from liability related to the donation of perishable foods. Waste Not, a local organization that delivers food to charitable agencies across the city, has 106 donors protected under the law, including Trader Joe's and Starbucks.

The Good Samaritan Law does not allow for dumpster diving. In some Valley cities, it's a misdemeanor; in others, a civil offense. You can get charged with trespassing. Police in Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale report no increase in activity, but storeowners clearly disagree.

A freegan named Dawn says she and a friend tried to dive in a dumpster behind a small food store off McDowell Road but tripped an alarm with flashing blue lights and a recorded voice informing them, "This dumpster is protected."

Some storeowners use locks on their dumpsters. And though some freegans, like Greentree and Mr. Pink, are adamant that locked dumpsters should be left alone, others aren't so scrupulous. A beatnik-looking freegan named Aaron explains that if one person gets on top of the dumpster and two others pull the guard bar up as far as it will go, the person on the dumpster can just pull the lid out from under the bar and get in without breaking the lock.

Such methods make dumpster diving less promising for new scavengers, as storeowners tighten security to prevent property damage and loss. And while Greentree thinks it's great that so many more people are dumpster diving now, other longtime freegans, like G.J., aren't exactly thrilled.

G.J., 22, left his parents' Florida home when he was 16 and lived in New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Vancouver before riding his bicycle into Phoenix several months ago. He squatted on the roof of a building at Tempe Beach Park with Ghost for a few weeks before moving in with his girlfriend.

A tall, skinny freegan with long, blond dreadlocks, G.J. resents capitalist society. He doesn't like the idea of people who might have jobs and money digging in the trash to take things they don't need — yet others do — just because they're usable and free.

He's been squatting and dumpster diving for years. "People stress themselves out, driving to work every day and working a job they hate so they can go home and sleep in the same place every night," he says, twirling a dreadlock that's encrusted with chips of blue spray paint. "I sleep where I want. The world is my bed."

G.J. believes that food should be free. But he does not believe that he should gather food for the homeless at the risk of going hungry himself.

He's volunteered with Food Not Bombs chapters in other states, and G.J. disagrees with the direction the Phoenix chapter of FNB is taking. "The original idea behind Food Not Bombs was not to feed the homeless," G.J. says. "It was to feed protesters at rallies. I think we should focus more on feeding ourselves, the middle class, and like-minded people."

"Everybody feeds the homeless," he continues. "One woman came up and said she'd eaten three times that day and complained that we had no meat. Eventually, she decided to 'stoop' to having some of our food."

One Sunday at the park, after spending four hours helping cook a meal, G.J. attempts to serve himself first. He's scolded by another FNB volunteer. "I don't think you should cut in line. These people have been waiting here."

G.J. grudgingly goes to the back of the line. By the time he gets to the food, there's very little left. "Okay," he grumbles. "I guess I'll have to go dumpster-dive my lunch."

For the Phoenix freegans who have homes, potluck parties are all the rage. A local freegan named Rainbow recently bought a house near central Phoenix. She calls it the "Rainbow Hive," and on a Saturday night in late July, she's throwing a housewarming party.

About 20 people are here — including her boyfriend, G.J. — drinking, playing bongo drums and didgeridoos, and spray-painting the wall in the backyard. In the garage, a makeshift music group that includes one of the Jemsek brothers from local band Haunted Cologne plays discordant psychedelic rock.

The potluck buffet consists entirely of dishes made with "dumpstered" food. Among the spread are chips and spinach dip, bean soup, salad, and something that looks like corn pudding. The only things not dumpstered are the cases of beer in the fridge.

Rainbow, 31, started dumpster diving a few years ago. A short brunette, Rainbow's arms and legs are muscular from riding a bike everywhere and hauling furniture from dumpsters on foot. She makes her living as a freelance American Sign Language interpreter, and she has a habit of signing as she speaks. She's almost always smiling and says things like "People are full of yummy goodness."

She says she's been reading a book titled The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, who explains how to make a compost toilet. There's an unused doghouse out back, where she plans to install one. She knows poop is taboo, but she argues that almost everything is grown in compost, and if you do it right, she says, composting your own waste is perfectly safe.

The purpose of this party is to have fun, of course, but it's unwittingly providing propaganda for dumpster diving, too, as a couple of unsuspecting guests marvel at the tastiness of the dishes before being told all the ingredients came from the trash.

They help themselves to seconds.

Sandy has never been on a dumpster dive before. When she met John Greentree at Conspire, he made it sound so great.

A single mother and a full-time college student, Sandy, 25, has long, curly black hair and pale skin, sans tattoos and piercings. She lives with her parents, but she says they struggle to buy groceries. "I just can't believe how much food goes to waste," she says. "Good food, too — I mean, I've heard a lot of it isn't even spoiled or expired."

She's excited about her first dumpster dive tonight, even though her outfit — a blue and white tie-dyed shirt and clean khaki pants — isn't exactly trash-picking gear. She says she hopes to find some bread to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and maybe some apples, because her toddler daughter loves apples.

It's nearing the end of July and Greentree just got back from Mexico today. He didn't last two weeks there — he ran out of money on the way to Chiapas and his contact for the Zapatistas never materialized. So he ended up walking more than 50 miles back across the border before hitching a ride. His neck is lobster red and he's hungry, so within two hours of arriving at Conspire, he's off on a dumpster dive with Sandy and Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink drives to the same dumpster where the female security guard caught them a few weeks before, but this time, he parks the van across the street. The plan is that everybody will go in and gather the food, then he'll retrieve the van for a quick load-in and take off. Mr. Pink serves as a lookout while Greentree digs through the dumpsters and hands stuff to Sandy.

Greentree's been diving for 10 minutes and he's already pulled out two full boxes of tomatoes, a 10-pound bag of potatoes, and several apples. Mr. Pink goes to get the van.

Then, Sandy sees the security guard heading their way in a golf cart. Everybody ducks behind the dumpsters and waits. The security guard cruises past, and they resume salvaging and sorting.

A couple of minutes later, Mr. Pink starts to pull up in the van, and the security guard suddenly comes back around the corner. Mr. Pink puts the van in reverse and drives off.

Greentree and Sandy stay out of sight until the guard drives by. Then, they take off out of the gate and start running across the street behind the shopping plaza.

The golf cart's suddenly right behind them, and the security guard is yelling after them. "Hey! Can you talk to me for a minute?"

Sandy turns with a panicked look on her face and exclaims, "No, we can't!"

But Greentree stops and walks back to the security guard. She peers at Greentree. "Are you the same people I caught here a few weeks ago?"

Greentree admits they are. "I got your friend's license plate," she says. "I saw him backing out just now. I don't plan on doing anything with it, but I want you to know I have it."

"Listen," she continues. "I don't care what you guys are doing back there. If you're hungry and you're getting some food, that's fine. But when you run from me, it makes me think you're doing something wrong. I know all the people that dive in these dumpsters, and I hadn't seen you before. I just like to know who's on my property."

The security guard introduces herself and shakes everybody's hand. "The next time you see me, do me a favor," she says. "Don't run. Wave."

Amazed at their good fortune, Greentree calls Mr. Pink and tells him it's okay to come back to the dumpster and load up the food.

On the ride back to Mr. Pink's, Greentree smiles. "You know, we've been diving in that dumpster for a couple months," he says. "The fact that she'd never seen us before just shows how good we are at this."

Back at Mr. Pink's, there's a massive amount of food spread out across the entire kitchen floor. It includes a bag of pasta and some tofu sausages ("Still cold!"), so Greentree immediately starts boiling water and concocting a sauce. He's cooking with the rabid intensity of a man who hasn't eaten in two days.

Mr. Pink starts washing oranges and apples for smoothies. Sandy sorts the rest of the food. It's midnight, and the group won't be finished with this project until almost 2 a.m.

Greentree and Mr. Pink shovel forkfuls of pasta into their mouths and talk about maybe having "Political Prisoner Sundays," when everybody gathers at Mr. Pink's house to watch movies about persecuted political activists. They don't even seem close to running out of steam, but Sandy's clearly exhausted. She's nodding off in a plastic folding chair at the other end of the room.

"I've got to get up at 6 a.m. with my daughter," she says. "Can you take me back to my car?"

Mr. Pink agrees to drive Sandy back to Conspire. Greentree asks if she'll give him a ride to his parents' house on the west side, as it's on the way to Sandy's. He says he'll sleep there tonight.

Sandy's happy with her first-time haul. It took four hours of work, but she's heading home with three loaves of artisan breads, a bag of apples, some pears, a few zucchini and onions, and a dozen eggs. And even though she'll wake up tomorrow with sore legs from the running, jumping, and lifting, she plans to do it again.

"I could see myself doing this regularly," she says. "My parents don't have a lot of money, and I'm trying to get through school. It makes complete sense."

"Of course," she adds. "I could never tell anyone."

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