Athens Freegans trawl through trash to reduce waste

By Anna Moore, CG Lifestyles & People

Badger Johnson, 23, an Ohio University junior studying applied ecology, adds to his collection of goods recovered from local trash bins. Johnson is a "freegan" and searches trash for reusable items. Photo by CG Photo Editor Elizabeth Linares.

It’s nighttime and local businesses are shutting down for the day. In the back alleyways of Athens, Ohio, a small group of people meet in the shadows, equipped with recyclable bags and excitement.

As they begin their night’s work, they descend into large metal trash bins in search of the unknown. Who are these nocturnal scavengers?  They are freegans and they have found their way to Athens.

The word “freeganism” is a combination of the words “vegan” and “free.” Vegans, who do not consume any meat or animal products, are usually concerned with animal suffering and the environmental effects of animal products. Freegans look beyond the food industry and live to combat consumerism in all aspects of life by scavenging for food, clothing, furniture and whatever else they need.

As practitioners of “Dumpster diving,” foraging, and environmentalism, freegans are finding new ways to reduce their impact on the earth. They are proving that living simply can still mean living fully.

Badger Johnson, 23, an Ohio University junior studying applied ecology, looks like an average college student with his unruly brown hair and a lime green T-shirt decorated with a “Beyond Coal” pin. However, there is more to him than meets the eye.

Johnson is a freegan and has been thriving off other people’s garbage since age 18. He discovered the art of Dumpster diving in the book “Recipes for Disaster,” which he describes as a collection of ideas for the “young, aspiring, lifestyle anarchist.”

One man’s waste is another man’s sustenance, and the U.S. produces enough waste to sustain more than the freegan subculture. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away 38 million tons of waste annually, leaving plenty of goods and food to go around.

Discarded food differs only slightly from what is sold on store shelves. Supermarkets cannot legally sell food that has met its use-by date, so they are forced to toss food that is still edible.

“Anything they sell in front, they throw away out back,” Johnson said.

The negative stigma attached to Dumpster diving does not seem to affect Johnson, who has become desensitized to the unpleasant aspects of the waste bin itself.

“Freegans celebrate the Dumpster,” he said, adding jokingly that his love of the trash bins is so great that he wishes to “conceive his first child in a Dumpster.”

Badger Johnson, 23, an Ohio University junior applied ecology major, jumps out of a local Dumpster with scavanged goods in hand. Photo by CG Photo Editor Elizabeth Linares.

When asked if he has ever found anything unusual in the trash, Johnson smiled as he reminisced about past jackpots. Among other things, Johnson has found a three-pound bag of pink sprinkles, cash and new Nike tennis shoes.

“If you find a real good score, then you are always curious what is in that Dumpster,” he said.

While talking about life as a freegan, Johnson was careful not to disclose too much information about the whereabouts of his favorite scavenging sites.

“If I told you I would have to kill you, or compete with you,” he joked.

Johnson said one misconception about freegans is that they live solely on old, stale food.

“I am a selective eater,” Johnson said. “I eat a low-gluten diet, with no bread, which is the easiest thing to get. Mostly fresh vegetables, fine cheeses, chocolate, fruit and eggs.”

A self-proclaimed “fine chocolate addict,” Johnson once found a trove of Endangered Species brand organic chocolate that lasted him three months with extra to give away. Beggars can indeed be choosers if they know where to look and who to ask.

Ronald Herzer, 21, a junior applied ecology and plant biology major at OU, is another local freegan. He advised would-be freegans to ignore the sideways glances of passersby.

“Sure you may look goofy peaking or diving in Dumpsters, but they are the crazy ones for not diving in or throwing perfectly good things away,” Herzer said.

Herzer also said to disregard horror stories about stepping on hypodermic needles or getting crushed by trash compactors. Those stories only exist to scare people away from the freegan lifestyle.  Herzer said he has never gotten sick from eating food he has scavenged from trash bins.

Andrew Ghiloni, 21, an OU junior studying plant biology and new freegan, has been casually practicing freeganism for a year and wants to encourage others to try it.

“For those that want to start ‘Dumpstering,’ you will need a headlight or flashlight, a pair of gloves and the self assurance that there is nothing wrong with saving great things from going to waste,” Ghiloni said.

Ghiloni said he finds searching through trash to be like a “treasure hunt” that is an exciting way to do something “for the greater good.”

Although Dumpster diving can lead to great finds, it’s not without its drawbacks.

Going through another person’s garbage is illegal if the trash’s generator deems the search an invasion of privacy and some businesses are not too keen on the idea of giving away their garbage. Garbage laws vary from state to state, and the line between private property and public domain is easily blurred.

Some people try to stop freegans from scrounging by sealing off trash bins or by calling the police to report trespassers. It is important for freegans not to get overzealous, Johnson said. He recommended forming relationships with business owners before foraging.

OU applied ecology junior and freegan Badger Johnson, 23, rummages through a trash bin. Photo by CG Photo Editor Elizabeth Linares.

Herzer has dealt with angry business managers who open meat packages and cover the food with yogurt and eggs to ward off foragers. He believes that what is in the trash should become public property.

“It is ridiculous that there are starving people and [businesses] have the nerve to keep them from it,” Herzer said.

Although urban freegans are skilled Dumpster divers, their lifestyle does not stop there. There are other practices that go beyond salvaging items from the trash.

Freegans cultivate their own sustainable food in local gardens and with the help of local farmers. They shop at thrift stores, barter for goods and live off the land.

Johnson said it is helpful to know the edible plants that grow naturally in one’s area.  As Johnson explained the bounty of nature, he plucked a small flower from the ground and said “This guy here, chickweed, high in omega-3 fatty acids, like flax seed, fish oil, and it is tasty.”

The freegan lifestyle may seem extreme, but its adherents see rampant consumerism as no less excessive. A simple and less wasteful lifestyle can be very fulfilling, Johnson said.

“I am never going back, and why would you?”