A night with the freegans

A night with the freegans

Ever since I started photographing back in 2012 at the ripe old age of 19, my primary subject has been garbage and everything that comes with it. It may seem an odd choice, but it comes from my love for Dadaism (an art movement that played with what is already present and questioned a lot of the existing art world) and the idea of a readymade (a term first used by the French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe works of art he made from pre-existing materials). When Duchamp flipped a urinal upside down, signed it, and placed it on a pedestal as a sculpture, he was essentially turning trash into treasure.

I have made it my duty as a photographer to document such found art existing in or from trash, and to share these works with the public. 

Trash buildup is impossible to ignore living in NYC (a never-ending source of found objects!), so naturally, I am also into all things Department of Sanitation. DSNY has some very forward-thinking initiatives to tackle waste management in New York, including a zero waste by 2030 initiative. I spend a lot of time educating myself on what they do, and am constantly surprised by what I come by on my Google deep dives.

One of their most unique tactics of getting the word out is through art and exhibition. While in the midst of a trash-filled rabbit hole Google search, I came across retired sanitation worker Nelson Molina, who curated Treasures in the Trash, a collection of nearly 40,000 items discovered over his 34-year career with DSNY. An article about his project had a line on “dumpster diving as an enviro-political act.” I quickly clicked on the link to that quote, and there I was introduced to the NYC Freegans, a group of activists who scavenge for free food, usually from waste receptacles outside of stores and restaurants, as a means of reducing consumption of resources. 

I always knew what freegans did but not why, and that’s part of what fascinated me. There was a meetup page (with nearly 3,000 members) listing their upcoming events, both virtual and in person. I saw they had a Freeganism 101 & Trash Tour — a night in which the freegans give rules, tips, and answers on trash-affiliated questions to the public while visiting multiple locations to dive. I knew I had to attend. I sent them an email to make sure they were OK with having media present, and we had a date!

Ursula was the host in charge on the night of my trash tour; she’s the one I had been corresponding with beforehand. She instructed me to meet the group on the corner of 44th Street & 2nd Avenue at 9 p.m. with a mask and empty shopping bags. That’s Midtown East and not too far from arguably the biggest tourist attraction of New York (i.e., Times Square), but just far enough where it’s inhabited mostly by locals, not tourists. Normally I’d be getting ready for bed at this time (early bird, I know) but the freegans can only dumpster dive at night for numerous reasons: First, waiting for stores to close, and second, less pedestrian traffic on the streets, which makes things easier.

Map of visited locations by freegans

All the locations we visited.
Credit: Bob Al-Greene

 A lot of people are probably asking the question, is this legal? I did, too. The internet has mixed thoughts and it ultimately depends on where you are, but the NYC Freegans assured me that if you are with them or following the rules, you are safe from arrest.

On that night, we did get some looks from the NYPD, but they didn’t seem to care enough to actually interact. We also got some looks from people in fancy clothing and accessories. I certainly felt judgment. They didn’t necessarily frown down upon us, but they also weren’t giving approval.

Ursula and our other host, Janet, shared three important rules before we headed out. #1: Each person in the group may individually dive, but what you find will be laid out in a pile for the whole group to go through together when everyone is done diving.

Some locations were going to be a bit messier than others, depending on the offerings available, they explained. Sometimes produce and other items are thrown out in neatly placed boxes inside a dumpster; other times the garbage is encased in a never-ending pile of tied-up trash bags. Rule #2 is to never rip the bags, and always neatly tie them back up. And rule #3: If you can, try to leave the location neater than how you found it, in case another person is also diving that night. If you arrive at a location where someone else is diving, let them finish before heading in yourself.

Now that we were well-versed in the fundamentals of freeganism, the group and I were ready to discover all that New York (trash) has to offer.

Individuals pulling trash bags out of dumpster

Credit: Molly Flores

freegans' hands searching through trash bag on ground

Credit: Molly Flores

Two individuals searching through trash bags

Credit: Molly Flores

What’s the most difficult-to-transport food item I’d come across on this night? If you guessed soup of the day, you are correct. Our first location of the evening was Health Nuts, a health food store offering an array of soup, much of which ended up in the trash. I cannot say these items went fast around our group, either. This was a moment of education and exposure. As a frequent soup maker during the cold months of winter who always makes too much to finish, I will never look at soup the same. No more wasting soup for me!

Stack of soup on the ground

Credit: Molly Flores

stack of soup on the ground out of focus

Credit: Molly Flores

We moved on to a couple of chain establishments, and I had a moment of nostalgia digging through Dunkin’s trash. I fondly remember calling it Dunkin’s Dumpsters as a bored and curious teenager of the suburbs due to the surplus of donuts available in their garbage after hours.

two freegans holding up a loaf of bread and bag of broccoli

Bread winners!
Credit: Molly Flores

Sadly, the abundance of jelly-filled and Boston creams were too squished to salvage, and no one was interested in donuts mixed with old coffee grinds. With sticky fingers, we moved on, joining the rest of the group at Duane Reade. Here, I wasn’t expecting more than some sketchy sushi and old Slim Jims. A shocker was the discovery of children’s Tylenol and allergy medication, possibly just too close to expiration. Multiple people in the group took some bottles.

Bicycle basket containing children's medicine

No container is off-limits when dumpster diving.
Credit: Molly Flores

At this point we were attracting a crowd.

In previous locations we’d been frowned at, judged, or looked down upon by older residents. But this time, a group of younger (probably millennial) bystanders were cheering and jumping for joy for our trash treasures. They seemed genuinely interested in what we were digging for and what we found.

two men walking by Janet and other freegans

Janet gets interviewed post Ess-a-Bagel dive.
Credit: Molly Flores

Individual holding up medicine bottle surrounded by crowd who is clapping

Tonight’s wins were in fact the children’s medication from Duane Reade.
Credit: Molly Flores

These brief moments of connection and happiness were something I never expected to find on a trash tour.

individual kicking up head of lettuce next to street sign

Quick round of lettuce hacky-sack?
Credit: Molly Flores

As we reached our next location, the Amish Market, Janet dispersed a supply of reused plastic bags to the group. This was actually our second visit to the Amish Market that evening: We’d been by earlier, but they weren’t yet closed. With employees giving us judgy looks from inside, we decided to come back later.

Janet standing behind abundance of found produce

Janet speaking to the group in front of the Amish Market.
Credit: Molly Flores

Now, the timing was right, and we had our biggest discovery of the night: apples, organic spinach, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, organic kale, asparagus, carrots, and the list goes on. The group pulled it out of dumpsters, trash bags, and produce bags, creating a massive pile of food in the center of us. It was a grocery haul fit for a family of 20.

Trash bag containing abundance of lettuce

Credit: Molly Flores

These items were barely defective, some with nothing but an expiration date matching the day of. I’m guessing that’s the reason they were tossed. 

Janet took a moment to use the bounty as a way of talking about the food system in America, which she believes is built to value profit more than care and compassion. Food is just too damn expensive, and feeding our people is seen as less important. 

According to a 2022 report from the waste management company RTS, 35 million people across America had food insecurity before the pandemic began, a number that’s expected to rise to as high as 50 million this year. Meanwhile, “the United States discards more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons — 80 billion pounds — every year.”

It can be overwhelming to imagine this sort of waste and its consequences, but hearing Janet’s words while standing around an overpriced pile of garbage, now worthless to the company that priced it too highly for it to have sold, really put things into perspective.

garbage bag containing multiple bagels

Credit: Molly Flores

garbage bag containing multiple bagels

Credit: Molly Flores

At the end of the night the group came away with an enormous haul. I haven’t gone back to dumpster dive myself, and I’m not sure I ever will. But seeing trash is believing trash. Since that night, I’ve made a conscious decision to do my small part, at the very least, to help with the problem of food waste: Always finish my groceries. That’s something I’d attempted to do before, but It wasn’t until I spent that night with the freegans that I realized how truly important it is not to throw away what we’re lucky enough to have.

Grocery store employee closing gate to store entrance

Closing Time.
Credit: Molly Flores

shopping list of found food from the night

Shopping List.
Credit: Bob Al-Greene

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“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

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