Maria Evrenos left her wallet at home for a week to discover that even an inexperienced urban forager can survive without money for a week by treasuring other people’s trash.
“Ah, here is another soft one”, the corner shop assistant says, squeezing a slightly blemished plum, before she drops it into my canvas bag.
And there it nestles next to two partially concave kiwis and another kilo or so of fruits and vegetables.
“I don’t know how many times a day I have to do this, it’s ridiculous!” she says, while inspecting her fresh produce section. “Look here”, she points to another beauty spot on an otherwise ripe banana. “Like this, and no-one will buy. We throw it away.” And she slips it into my bag.
Today I’m a taker of even the most cosmetically tainted carrot (looking more like a witch’s nose then a cartoon bunny’s accessoire).
I’ve taken on the mission to survive a whole week on food and things that otherwise would have gone to waste; tending to the abandoned, left-over, rejected, outdated and happily shared.
Treasuring other people’s trash
This is the lifestyle of a ‘freegan’. They – no, this week it’s ‘we’ – believe our economic system is built on production so profit-driven that any purchase you make leaves you with blood on your hands.
Our industrialised capitalist society is great at providing us with goods. WRAP (set up in 2000 to help recycling take off in the UK and to create a market for recycled materials) estimates that around 600 million tonnes of products and materials enter the UK economy each year.
But the system is far from resource-efficient. Of that 600 million tonnes, only 115 million tonnes gets recycled. Landfill sites already cover 109 square miles, with an extra 16 million tonnes of rubbish being added each year.
So instead of using money and buying food or things, a freegan lives by treasuring other people’s trash.
Mmmm … chocolate!
So I started foraging. During the course of the week I found a chair, two chocolate bars, a chest of drawers, shelves, a scarf and two packets of crackers on the street.
And even less further afield, simply looking out for domestic waste can get you far. I often managed to find breakfast this way – taking mercy on an abandoned half eaten chicken kebab left in the living room during the night or eating the left-overs from another flat mate’s dinner.
And every little helps. UK households are throwing away 4.2 million tonnes of household food and drink annually – the equivalent of six meals every week, according to WRAP.
Searching my dad’s fridge on my first day as a scavenger scored me half a pint of milk and smoked Norwegian salmon. Both were past their use by date by a couple of days, so he would only have thrown them away!
A build-up of bacteria may occur …
According to NHS guidelines, “foods may be unsafe to eat even if they look fine, because the nutrients in the food may become unstable or a build-up of bacteria may occur.”
That sounds scary. But throughout the week I suffered no repercussions – even though bread needed to be quite thoroughly heated before eaten. I also realised how chewy a croissant gets as it ‘matures’, and how much more filling it is in its more solid form.
Surviving my first day on the handout of overdue fruit and vegetables from a corner shop I was feeling pretty euphoric. Passing lines, rebelling against the status quo, made me feel free.
The drunken monkey diet
But at times it was also really hard. To figure out how to survive without money I used a website called Moneyless – a practical as well as an ideological guide to freeganism.
It was set up about a month ago by two Dutch men in their late twenties. One the website they write: “Living without money is not easy. You have to also give up some things.”
They were right … Not being able to buy coffee was hard, also cycling to school regardless of the weather. And my diet suffered. One day a friend summed up my nutritional intake as “the drunken monkey diet”.
He had a point. That day all I ate was a stale croissant, four bananas, chocolate, some rice – and bliss … abandoned beer from the bar I work at in the evening.
Another morning the only breakfast I could find was some rice, miniature pretzels and half a Strongbow cider – quite a break from my usual scrambled eggs on toast and coffee.
No more mechanised blipping
The wise counsel of moneyless.org was a comfort in these weak moments. “You will give up the comfort to buy what you desire. Instead you’ll get another lifestyle: one which you’ll be happy with, where you are obligated to be more creative to satisfy your needs.”
Following this advice I embarked on missions – like walking to my local coffee shop armed with a book which I had already read and asking if I could swap it for a coffee.
They were happy to do so, and the pleasure of exchanging goods based on mutual delight instead of money was very nice. We ended up talking about all kinds of stuff, instead of the mechanised blipping and nodding of a supermarket check out transaction.
Overcoming social stigma
But sometimes it was horribly embarrassing too. It still felt sometimes like I was begging, asking for things for free.
And even though I was about to chew my fingers off, I let half-eaten portion after half eaten portion of fish and chips to be scraped into the bin in my University canteen – because I was simply too embarrassed to ask for the left-overs. The social stigma was too strong for me.
Freeganism also introduced me to new ingredients like pumpkin and plantain and other vegetables that I still haven’t been able to identify what they were. This regime doesn’t discriminate in regards to content, as the mantra goes: “You’re freegan now, you eat whatever is free.”
Dumpster diving (not an Olympic sport)
But to really survive without money, without going hungry, I had to go dumpster diving. Luckily, I knew a guy who reassured me: “You can do it for a week. I’ve done it for a year.”
Jim, 25, learnt to rummage the bins of supermarkets and restaurants for food from a housemate. “He was always eating sushi, and I really like sushi, and when he said that he was getting it for free I thought yeah, this is great. Also, I was broke, so I thought I’d try it.”
Jim was reluctant to tell me about all of his skipping spots, in the same way one would be protective over a cherished mushroom clearing in the woods. But also because Jim recently had had had a bad experience.
The restaurant he usually receives food from had changed their policy and employers had been told to shred the food before dumping it. “They said some people had been taking the sushi and then selling it at the station!”
A thrilling night
But one evening Jim agreed to take me with him to skip a supermarket bin. It was thrilling. Over a fence we climbed, opened the dumpsters, filled our bags with bread, pastries and a pumpkin, and off we cycled.
We didn’t need the figures released by Tesco this month revealing that almost half of its bakery items are wasted, the evidence was already on the table. A tiny sample of the almost 30,000 tonnes of food Tesco threw away in the first six months of 2013.
And the food that ends up in the bins are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wasting resources. When you calculate for example the expenses in water use and carbon emissions that went into production and transport, you realise the scale of the issue.
Tesco has said that it is addressing the problem of waste by ending multi-buys on bags of salad and rearranging 600 in-store bakeries to reduce the amount of bread on display, etc.
It would not work if we all did it
In the meantime, Freeganism is one way of protesting and putting pressure on governments and businesses to speed up the process of minimising the extent of resources squandered by stepping out of the formal economy.
“It’s not something I would do, to put it mildly”, says Dr Stephen Davies, Education Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
“But I have more respect for people who do this and actually walk the walk than I do for those who complain about the domination of money and consumerism while themselves leading a right-on consumerist lifestyle.”
But he adds that it doesn’t hold up as a widespread economic model. “If we still had exchange but not money then we would have a living standard comparable to that of the Incas or the Aztecs.
“This would be a huge reduction from our present standard of living. Moreover we would only be able to feed and support a population of maximum 400-500 million.”
My carbon footprint plummetted
After hours of looking for food or goods, the embarrassment of asking for left-overs and cycling in the rain I agree that working in the conventional economy and buying goods is a lot more convenient and time effective.
But in terms of sustainability I decreased my carbon footprint, the amount of the main man-made gas contributing to global climate change that I used, to a level equivalent to 60 kilos per year.
And that’s a significant improvement compared to the national average of 7.6 tonnes – according to figures from the Department for Energy & Climate Change (DECC).
So after a week of swapping things I don’t need, for stuff I do, taking care of abandoned food and furniture and dumpster diving, I will continue to live with an heightened awareness of how much trash there is that can be used.
And I will remember how gently it is possible to tread on this earth – if only you’re willing to ‘walk the walk’.
Maria Evrenos is a freelance multi-media journalist based in London. You can find more of her work on her website or contact her via her LinkedIn profile.