Freegans in Boulder want to control wasteful society |

Freegans in Boulder want to control wasteful society

Boulder Daily Camera

BOULDER ” Jonathan Meuser leapt into each Dumpster in a single acrobatic motion, perfected from years of experience.

He and two others emerged with bagels, muffins, pastries, fruit and vegetables. Other times, they say, it’s doughnuts, chocolate, watches, laptop computers, snowboards and golf clubs.

At the end of his weekly, hour-long Boulder trash tour Friday evening, Meuser and his friends returned to his housing cooperative with his biodiesel Volkswagen Jetta’s trunk full of food. There would be salad from the home’s garden and chile rellenos from the trash for dinner.

It’s a way of life not that uncommon in Boulder and other parts of the world, where “freegans” and others are attempting to change what they see as a wasteful society.

Meuser has been calling himself a freegan ” derived from the words “free” and “vegan” ” since 2001, before the term gained exposure a couple of years ago from an international Web site dedicated to people who live off the waste of others.

Those subscribing to freeganism range from people who don’t believe in buying food at all to people like Meuser, who say they’re simply trying to minimize their impact on the environment by eating homegrown or organically grown food ” and by reclaiming food that’s been thrown out.

The 26-year-old graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines and researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said he is generally a vegan, but he eats food made from animal products if it’s otherwise destined for a landfill. He also gives it to friends or the needy.

He once found 400 pounds of broken chocolate bars in the trash and distributed them in downtown Denver.

“With all the technology today, it’s amazing to me that we can’t think of a better way to get this food into people’s mouths instead of the Dumpster,” Meuser said. “The ideal is a zero-waste system when there wouldn’t be the necessity for Dumpster diving, as fun as it is.”

Americans generated 27.6 million tons of food-scrap waste in 2003, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s 12 percent of all trash, before recycling.

Dumpster diving isn’t encouraged by store owners facing liability issues, and some shops lock their trash storage areas or use compactors that make it impossible to scavenge. Some give their leftovers directly to food banks, a system that freegans advocate.

Still, foragers aren’t turned away at many places and they find plenty of loot. Enough people frequent Boulder-area Dumpsters on a daily basis that Meuser leaves some found food behind for other freegans and those who might need it to survive.

Dumpster divers say they don’t just scavenge anything, avoiding food that smells bad or is directly exposed to garbage.

Dressed in a set of dirt-stained coveralls and standing in a trash bin behind Vitamin Cottage on Friday, Meuser held up an exposed piece of watermelon ” explaining that it’s “first-degree” Dumpster food ” and tossed it back in.

He’ll only take at least “second-degree” goods that are protected, he said, like the dozens of bagels he later found in a giant plastic bag in a bin behind Einstein Bros. Bagels. Even better were the “third-degree” muffins and pastries there, individually wrapped in plastic and stored inside a cardboard box.

The trash tour even included a coveted “interception” behind a Wild Oats Market when the group happened to arrive as a worker was taking out 50 pounds of leftover potatoes, chard and fruit as well as the poblano peppers that would become chile rellenos. That stash never even entered the trash bin, making it prime goods.

Jeff Israel, 25, a University of Colorado graduate student, said he grew up on Dumpster trash ” unopened potato chips, flat soda, melted ice cream, even toothpaste ” and never got sick from it.

He said he’s tired of most trash food, but just about everything he owns came from there: He’s found shoes, clothes, a snowboard, a $5,000 watch, dozens of laptops. The best times to hit Dumpsters for expensive goods, he said, are during the CU students’ move-in and move-out periods.

“I get a little obsessive about the waste thing,” he said. “I’ve never seen so much good trash as I have here.”

Mo Cassidy, 22, a graduate student at CU, said she spent her sophomore year eating almost nothing but thrown-out food. She was a cook for Food Not Bombs, which got some of its food from Dumpsters and some from stores before it made it to the trash.

“My stomach got tough,” she said.

Meuser said about 10 percent to 15 percent of his food comes from the trash. The rest he gets at the Boulder Cooperative Market or from his home’s garden.

A more extreme version of the freegan lifestyle entails living solely on the waste of others. That’s the philosophy advocated at, an international site for a growing movement of foragers.

“Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts, most of which we may never even consider,” the site says. “Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.”

Meuser said the problem with living entirely off others’ trash is that it requires a wasteful society by definition.

But Bradley Albus, 27, says he hasn’t bought food in more than three years.

Homeless and jobless in Boulder, he generally won’t eat food if someone buys it for him and he doesn’t beg for money, said Adam Tinnell, a friend of Albus and a recent CU graduate.

“I’m very much interested in the sharing of food,” Albus said when reached by e-mail. “Many tons of edible food are thrown out daily, all across the country.”

Transient members of the Rainbow Family, who were in Boulder last week, said they’re against buying food, as well as paying rent or mortgages, because it would force them to become part of a greed-based society. They foraged in Pearl Street Mall trash bins and asked passers-by for money and leftover restaurant food.

“I live off what people are willing to give away or throw away,” said Gabriel Thomas, 30, gathered with other Rainbow Family members on a street corner littered with cardboard signs advocating an end to the war on drugs, as well as guitars, backpacks, dogs and half-empty bags of pretzels and chips. “I just go from trash can to trash can and eat half-eaten burgers and sandwiches. It’s ecological and fulfilling.”

Thomas said having a job and apartment would enslave him; he hitchhikes from town to town and sleeps in forest areas.

“Capitalism is ‘I have some, I want more, and I want more than you,'” he said.

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