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The (Low, Low) Cost of Living: Liberated Trash and the Art of Something for Nothing

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With coupon clipping now vogue once again after years of gourmet chic in supermarket aisles throughout the nation, freethinkers up and down the East Coast are taking the concept to its extreme and turning the capitalist model of “supper time” on its ear. They’re doing it by forgoing the edible excesses of years past and, in the process, are redefining the old adage of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” That’s right: they’re eating from the dumpster.

“Many people think it is disgusting…[and] will turn their noses up at the thought of eating from the trash. People assume that if something is in the trash, it is there for a reason — because it is no good anymore. This just isn’t true,” says self-professed “dumpsterer” Heather Muszynski, a 24-year old native of Frederick, Maryland and staffer at a local DC non-profit. She’s been inspecting the contents of dumpsters nationwide since her teens and regularly makes the rounds behind area grocers.

“Some grocery stores throw away whole vegetables in one trash can with a clean bag and not mixed with any other waste. There is nothing tainted about it,” she says. “And frequently it is not just food that has reached the expiration date. Often times, it’s what they dropped on the floor or a cake that they baked and didn’t look ‘right,’ et cetera.”

(Photo: Saguras via Flickr)
(Photo: Saguras via Flickr)

While some of those committed to abandoning humanity’s more childish taboos surrounding food peg themselves “freegans” – a portmanteau of “free” and “vegan” that indicates their pursuit of not only free food, but clothing and shelter well – others simply defer to the de facto title of “dumpster diver.” It’s a title signifying one’s dedication to “liberating” just a small fraction of the millions of tons of food thrown out by grocers and restaurateurs every year. Muszynski puts herself in this category and she rarely, if ever, finds herself wanting for a quality meal. In fact, she’s devised her very own siege perilous for all the skeptics out there who’d scoff at her way of life.

“Go dumpster a bunch of food, cook a delicious meal with what you can find and invite [a] judgmental person over for dinner,” says Muszynski. “After they’ve finished their meal and complimented you greatly for a delicious dinner, tell them that everything they ate came from a dumpster. More often than not they will change their minds…Usually, they are pleasantly surprised. I’ve even known some of these people to become divers themselves.”

And it’s not only food that that’s ripe for the picking these days. In her time pilfering rubbish heaps in the DC area, Muszynski says she turned up everything from art supplies to kayaks to marijuana in District dumpsters, along with things of a more practical nature: at present, her house is 80% furnished by things liberated from the rubbish heap. “Why should I buy something brand new when I can get something just as good in the trash?” she says. “Reduce, reuse.”

In an era when “green fever” is dovetailing with a decline in the economy faster than you can say “Waste Not, Want Not,” that sentiment is spreading. In the Washington metro area alone, numerous collectives have sprung up to fill in the increasing gap purchasing power. In District neighborhoods like Shaw and Glover Park, community gardens provide free, fresh, locally grown produce to area residents. Area cooperative markets, such as the University of Maryland Food Co-Op, offer “work-for-food” programs where employees are rewarded with credit towards store goods, instead of hourly wages.

(Photo: Kimberly Watson)
(Photo: Kimberly Watson)

Then there’s the concept of the “free store” or “free market” – yard sale-esque gatherings where everything from paperback books to baby clothes changes hands at no cost to the consumer. In short, they’re a place where anyone –regardless of the size of their paycheck – can leave with something that provides entertainment or a utility. Though the DC area has occasionally hosted “really, really free markets” of its own, just a few miles away in Baltimore, the idea is thriving under the auspices of the Batimore Free Store.

“The concept…grew out of the work of a number of social justice organizations centered in Towson, Maryland,” says Julia Sargent, Public Relations Director for the Baltimore Free Store. “Students from Towson University, Goucher College, and area high schools worked together on issues of fair trade, labor rights, anti-war, animal rights, and other pro-community issues.”

Community is indeed one of the linchpins of the “free” underground. When objects lack of price tag, they’re equally accessible to everyone -– regardless of their socioeconomic background. That message isn’t lost on the minds behind the Free Store: though currently in the midst of search for a permanent storefront, Sargent and her colleagues never fail to turn up a crowd when they hold their monthly free markets throughout the city. Stocked entirely by items donated at their North Haven Street warehouse, they typically accrue upwards of a hundred and fifty thankful participants at each event – and the origins of the objects up for grabs seem to be little importance to those in attendance.

“We normally have a line of people who wait outside until the doors open and they often help us with setting up and volunteering at the event,” says Sargent. “We collect things solely from personal donations…However, I have talked to a couple of people who like to bring us things that they dumpster-dive or pick up off of the street.”

As evidenced by “dumpsterers” like Heather Muszynski and her ilk, those people generally defy the public’s ingrained image of the bum they’d expect to find scavenging through their local alley. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out the practicality of reclaiming perfectly good items before they go to waste is something literally everyone can afford to do.

“A lot of people also think that divers are disgusting, dirty, grody folks. Maybe they think we’re punks or hippies or homeless. This is and isn’t true – all kinds of people dumpster. And dirty? Well, no,” says Muszynski. “When I get dressed for work in the morning or see you at the movie theater or when I’m eating at a restaurant, you would not automatically think ‘Oh, what a dirty, disgusting girl!’…We’re not gross. We’re just smart enough to save our resources and use yours instead.”