Elitist Dumpster Divers

Recently I disposed of a vast amount of my personal belongings — a half dozen big heavy-gauge contractor bags worth of stuff along with a few crates of books and records and the odd piece of furniture. Partly this purge was motivated by nothing more noble than an overreaction to an insect infestation I’d really rather not discuss, but partly it was a concerted, conscientious effort to stop being so sentimental about objects.

Objects are often regarded as repositories of memories and feelings, material prompts to relive the circumstances that led to our owning them: This is a pocket watch my first girlfriend gave me; this is the broken bass I played in college, in an experimental noise jam that led to a noise violation; this is a picture frame that belonged to my grandmother; this is a jacket I got at Value Village in Montreal that I thought someday I would have the courage to wear in public.

But lately I’ve grown suspicious of the objects and the feelings I’ve attached to them, fearing that they are preventing me from retaining a deeper or clearer version of what I’m trying to preserve in my actual brain. If I didn’t still have the pocket watch, would I remember some other aspect of that first girlfriend more clearly — the sound of her voice, how her eyes looked when she was happy?

If I didn’t have so much stuff, not only would the stuff I retained mean more to me (the operating principle behind my periodic record-collection cleansing; if there were fewer records, I’d listen to those that remained more intently and get more out of them), but perhaps some valence would be restored to my actual memories and imagination, beyond the curatorial impulses grooming a collection of objects inspires.

And possibly by throwing things away I could liberate myself from the overwhelming sadness that accumulates in unused objects. This quiet despair confronts me mainly when I open the refrigerator and see all the good intentions I had to eat more fruit and vegetables slowly rotting away in the crisper drawers. But it’s hard to confront this failure, accept that those grocery store fantasies of actually preparing meals after work were just fantasies, and get rid of it all. So it continues to sit there uneaten, uneatable. The same inertia governs my feelings toward a lot of my possessions: the foreign language books unstudied, the racquetball racket never used, the undeveloped rolls of film, the clothes never worn; they all evoke unrealized, unrealizable dreams.

So it seemed best to get rid of it as much as possible: Project Spartan. If I reduced my possessions to only immediately useful things — a week’s wardrobe, one set of dishes, one bookshelf full of books (the rest I could get from the library) — I wouldn’t be haunted by the memories and unfulfilled ideals that get trapped in the sort of stuff one just keeps around. I felt I needed to get back to where I was a dozen years ago, when I could move myself across the country in a Toyota Tercel. With fewer possessions, I’d be troubled with fewer decisions, and plus I’d have the added adventure of having to forage on a near-daily basis to meet the needs I hadn’t anticipated in my zeal to disencumber myself. These needs would thereby feel more intensely legitimate as well; I wouldn’t be shopping idly to kill time; I’d be getting a pair of socks because otherwise I’d be putting dirty ones back on my feet. I’d be surviving my own self-generated crisis.

Rather than take everything I was getting rid of to a thrift store, I chose to leave it on the curb. This was mainly out of laziness, but I felt better about it as much of what I had put out magically disappeared over the course of a humid afternoon. It surprised me what people were most interested in: travel books from the ’90s, not Oxford paperbacks of Dickens novels; 3M Bookshelf board games, not indie rock from the ’80s on vinyl. Passersby had no shame in treating the sidewalk in front of the house as though it were the shoe aisle at Target, throwing things they didn’t want out into the street, turning boxes upside down and leaving piles of debris, all of which made me understand why the Sanitation Department in New York is so vigilant in fining homeowners for putting out their trash early.

But what I found most strange were the times when I would come back to the house after being out and become momentarily fascinated with my own garbage. An instinct for scavenging would kick in as I’d forget for an instant that I had put it out there and that I was trying to rid myself of things. I would feel almost jealous that I couldn’t root through my own things and be pleased about the stuff I was going to rescue from the landfill. My own junk, were it someone else’s, would become treasure to me — booty I was lucky enough to stumble upon. I had to admit to myself that had I come upon the same stuff I had placed on my curb in front of someone else’s place, I would have carted a good deal of it home.

Photo from MookyChick.co.uk

I’m not the only one fascinated with other people’s trash, however. There have always been garbage scavengers — Dickens, for example, devotes much of Our Mutual Friend to elaborating metaphors from the grubby existence led by those living off of London’s trash heaps. But in the midst of resurgent environmentalism, scavenging has recently become almost respectable; it has, for a few bourgeois, become something of an organized practice, so much so that The New York Times recently ran a lifestyle article about it (“Not Buying It” by Steven Kurutz, 21 June 2007). As students abandon their dorms for summer, apparently an annual trash-picking bonanza ensues, particularly since ” N.Y.U.’s affluent student body makes for unusually profitable Dumpster diving.” Kurutz reports that “the gathering at the Third Avenue North trash bin quickly took on a giddy shopping-spree air, as members of the group came up with one first-class find after another.” Even though I was in the midst of Project Spartan, it was enough to make me envious.

The article explains how groups have used the Web to organize in order to take advantage of such opportunities, and how their efforts have begun to take on the air of an ethical mission. Salvaging usable goods from the trash is a good way to demonstrate one’s reluctance to participate in the consumerism’s disposable culture. I had felt this impulse many times in the thrift store, buying some disposable items whose life I would extend, thereby striking a small guerrilla blow against the consumer economy. I felt it, too, when I’ve used something way past the moment of its obsolescence — when I hooked up an Atari in the late ’90s, for example, or when I’d persist in wearing holy T-shirts that had become almost translucent with age. But I had never taken it as far as the “freegans”:

Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism. They forage through supermarket trash and eat the slightly bruised produce or just-expired canned goods that are routinely thrown out, and negotiate gifts of surplus food from sympathetic stores and restaurants.

They dress in castoff clothes and furnish their homes with items found on the street; at freecycle.org, where users post unwanted items; and at so-called freemeets, flea markets where no money is exchanged. Some claim to hold themselves to rigorous standards. “If a person chooses to live an ethical lifestyle it’s not enough to be vegan, they need to absent themselves from capitalism,” said Adam Weissman, 29, who started freegan.info four years ago and is the movement’s de facto spokesman.

When I read phrases like “out-of-control consumerism” and “absent themselves from capitalism”, I yearn to be sympathetic with the freegan mission. I’m sure the freegans’ logic is that by reusing something, they are circumventing the need for new objects to be produced. By contenting themselves with stuff that already would have been manufactured anyway, they are easing the ecological pressures industrial society have put on Mother Earth. But then I can’t help but remember a similar movement that blossomed in Southern California in the late ’60s, led by a scraggly singer-songwriter who wrote paeans to freeloading off society’s refuse, including one called “Garbage Dump”:

Oh garbage dump oh garbage dump

Why are you called a garbage dump

You could feed the world with my garbage dump…

Here’s a market basket and a A&P

I don’t care if the box boys are starin’ at me

I don’t even care who wins the war

I’ll be in them cans behind my favorite store

The composer of this ditty, Charles Manson, had some other, more radical ideas about racial conflict and what his band of followers needed to do to foment the inevitable social Armageddon.

Of course, it’s completely unfair to liken the freegans to Manson’s murderous hippie cult, but the way they come across in the Timesarticle makes them seem to share a similar contemptuous spirit toward ordinary people rendered all the more dangerous by their evident naiveté. And this not merely because the author chooses to discredit leftist politics by selecting people like this as exemplars: “Ms. Elia, the 17-year-old, who lives with her father in Manhattan. She said she became a freegan both for environmental reasons and because ‘I’m not down with capitalism.'”

The implicit narrative behind holding up the Susan Atkins-esque Ms. Elia and her ilk up for ridicule runs like this: Leftism becomes associated with an interim period of youth when you are not yet firmly entrenched in the system, not yet making the most of your earning potential, and are disgruntled with the effort it takes to become assimilated into in society as it is. You consider dropping out and rebelling against mainstream society by rejecting its rules, like “Don’t eat what other people throw away.” With your luxurious spate of free time, you complain and conceive of schemes to freeload off the capitalist society you blithely put down. Then one day you grow up, and you give up picking up trash items from the sidewalk, and you set your worn-out, second-hand ideology by the curb.

No, the problems with the freegan philosophy run a little deeper than the disservice the ideology does to progressive causes. First, the freegan program can’t be universalized: Obviously, if everyone decided to live on the refuse of others, we’d quickly run out of refuse — somebody (those undoubtedly castigated as wasteful, as gullible, easily manipulated mainstreamers who thoughtlessly pursue novelty) needs to be throwing stuff away for their lifestyle to work. In fact, only a nonconformist elite can live freegan, outside the compromises and often painful moral sacrifices those who supply the trash must make as a matter of course. Ordinary people need to make a difficult peace with an imperfect economic system, whereas freegans can glean their leavings while taunting them for their political impurity.

But just because you might not go shopping doesn’t mean you have “absented” yourself from capitalism; capitalism is much broader than consumerism, which is merely one aspect of capitalism as it’s currently configured in Western countries. By choosing to survive on the mainstream society’s unwanted surplus, freegans may be working to perpetuate the culture they profess to despise. After all, parasites need their host to survive and will do what they can to perpetuate the lifespan of the creature they feed from. And if freegans are merely fulfilling the same consumer desires that fuel the rest of us only with secondhand goods, how are they opting out?

Employing unconventional means won’t necessarily justify the ends; getting a cool thing out of the trash doesn’t make the acquisitive lifestyle righteous. Opting out of consumerism would seem to imply conceiving an alternative set of values and desires, new ways of fulfilling one’s human potential independent of consumption. But freegans seem to putting consumption at the very heart of their identity, just as a consumerist culture expects one to.

Not buying things is not a terrible way to begin disengaging from consumerism, from the mentality that shopping and consuming is the purpose of life. It’s not possible to cease being a consumer, but one can take pains to assure that it is not one’s primary identity. Rescuing things is not bad, but indifference to things would be better.

Sadly, I’m not sure that Project Spartan is anything other than my own personalized version of freeganism. If I can’t walk by my own trash without becoming fascinated, without yearning for a moment’s diversion in it, I haven’t made it very far down the road of freeing myself off objects’ hold over me. It would be nice to get myself to the point where I won’t feel obliged to peer into boxes of trashed books and can instead rest assured that I already have plenty I’ve books I’ll never actually read as it is.