Food Waste and Freeganism in NYC – Part I

Posted: August 22, 2019 in Adventures, Food, New York
Tags: , , ,

It is 6:30 PM on a hot Monday evening in August. My friend Melinda and I stand casually outside a Manhattan grocery store, chatting as we wait for the next black bag being brought to the sidewalk. We smile at the store worker as he places it at the curb and stroll over to investigate, our carry bags ready. “This one is cold…seems like packaged foods,” Melinda observes as she feels the side of the bag. We untie the knot and discover that she is correct; a wealth of frozen treasures hide within. We sift through the bag, pulling out boxes of pizza poppers, enchilada bowls, frozen breakfast burritos, waffles, green beans, vegan “meat” strips…it is never-ending. There is no actual trash in the bag, just boxes upon boxes of still-cold frozen foods seemingly chucked straight from the shelves to the curb. I look for the expiration dates on a few items, knowing how meaningless those dates usually are but checking just in case, and on almost every item the date is approaching but has not yet passed. “I guess they had to make room for a new shipment.” I shrug, wishing this was surprising, and hand Melinda a box of gluten-free mac and cheese. We split the remainder of the items, regretfully leaving many behind. There is only so much we can carry, so we have to be picky to save room for items we want the most. I’ve collected at least $20 worth of food from just this one bag; what will we find next?

My freezer, packed to capacity with food found from dumpster diving.
Another bag from that 6:30 PM dive. None of the expiration dates had passed on these cereals.

The scenario described above is not uncommon in New York City. Outside almost every grocery store, bagel shop, bakery, specialty food shop, etc., on almost every night of the week, perfectly good food is thrown away. Eight dozen eggs may be tossed because of a single yolk messing up the cartons, $300 of fancy cheeses discarded because of upcoming sell-by dates, scores of apples sent to the curb for minor bruises, bulging trash bags filled solely with bagels because new batches will be baked in the morning.

I discovered the food wasteland of NYC a little over a year ago after hosting Benny and Mira, two lovely couchsurfers from Australia. They get almost all their food back home by dumpster diving and were wondering what the scene was like in New York. I knew very little about dumpster diving but was intrigued by their description (it does not require literally diving into dumpsters…unless you really want to), and a quick google search revealed a secret side of NYC – and of most cities – that I’d never known existed. I took the plunge by joining the group NYC Freegan Meetup and registered for an event, “Freeganism 101 and Trash Tour,” eager to learn more.

Freeganism 101

I attended my first “trash tour” on Friday, November 2nd, 2018. I met the group at 9 PM at a public meeting space in upper Manhattan and was offered an array of treats collected from the trash: Cookies, cake, yogurt, crackers…the quantity and quality of snacks present at that meeting blew my mind. Then we got down to business: An introduction to freeganism followed by a trash tour of the area. Here are some of the facts I learned there and in the time since about food waste (collected mainly from and from the NYC Mayor’s Food Waste Challenge to Restaurants):

  • 40% of edible food is wasted in the US, while over 50 million Americans live in poverty. (source)
  • NYC sends four million tons of waste to landfills every year.
  • Of that four million tons, roughly one third is food waste.
  • When food waste degrades in landfills it produces methane, a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming.
  • In her article on dumpster diving in NYC, Eillie Anzilotti states that 16% of New York City residents are food insecure, meaning they may not know where their next meal will come from or if they’ll be able to afford it.
  • Dumpster diving is one aspect of freeganism, a movement based around “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.” (
  • Freeganism is built on the following principles:
    • Waste Reclamation: “The practice of recovering useable items from dumpsters or street curbs that have been needlessly discarded.” This mainly includes dumpster diving, the act of rummaging through trash bins, dumpsters, trash bags, etc. of retailers, residences, and other facilities. Picking up a discarded chair or set of dinner plates from the curb is as much a part of dumpster diving as collecting bagels from a streetside trash bag; any items put to the curb as public trash are available for taking.
    • Waste Minimization: Freegans try to live a zero-waste lifestyle, always recycling, upcycling, etc. This also includes acquiring/contributing items from/to freemarkets, etc.
    • Eco-Friendly Transportation: Rather than contribute to pollution by driving an automobile, part of freeganism includes finding alternative methods of transportation, such as cycling.
    • Rent-Free Housing: Some freegans convert abandoned buildings into community centers, work spaces, or living areas, but rent-free housing also includes the exchange of living spaces through programs like Couchsurfing, Warmshowers, Hospitality Club, and even ones that require the exchange of services such as WWOOF, Workaway, Trusted House Sitters, etc.
    • Going Green: This mainly includes growing food, participating in community gardens, foraging, etc.
    • Working Less: By acquiring basic needs without spending much money, freegans are able to reduce the amount of time they need to be actively making income in the “money economy” and can devote more time and energy to the “core economy” (home, family, neighborhood, community) through volunteerism, activism, participating in TimeBanks, etc. Worker-led unions are an example of the freegan spirit within the workplace.

Learning about freeganism was very cool – I realized I’d been practicing many aspects of freeganism for years and had never known there was a term for it. Armed with my new knowledge, I followed event organizer Janet (who has been dumpster diving in NYC for over a decade!) and the rest of the group out into the cool Manhattan night air. It was 9:30 PM and we were about to discover just how wasteful NYC can be.

Stay tuned for Part II for more info. about dumpster diving, tips for getting started, and photos from some of my diving experiences. 

  1. Ken says:

    Cutting edge. You are living a life of deeper intentionality more and more everyday. A pioneer. Thanks for showing the way. I’m going to share.

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