Dumpster Diving, Foraging, and Composting: A Day in the Life of a Freegan

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Compost John with a giant puffball mushroom (Photo: John Cossham)

As a person who lives a freegan lifestyle – choosing to feed myself on other people’s waste – Thursday is a particularly busy day for me.

This is usually the day I go to make a massive collection from various food banks in the area. I’ll get all the stuff they can’t give, maybe because it’s a day out of date, and put it in my bike trailer.

However, what I collect is not always meant to be eaten. I give it to friends, and for inedible items I put the contents in one of my composting systems to begin the process of breaking down into rich soil.

From there it ends up in my garden. I like to grow perennial foods plants; I have apple, pear and plum trees and I grow walnuts, hazelnuts, asparagus and perpetual spinach. My family and I eat well and have lots of extra compost to help others do the same.

Not a day goes by that I don’t do something that doesn’t collect and recycle – it’s just something that makes sense to me.

I guess the idea of ​​living off the land has been with me since I was a child: I picked blackberries with my parents and garden with them while they grew food.

Then, in 1984, when I was 18 and attending university for the first time, things sped up when I saw this big tuft of mushrooms growing at the base of a tree.

I chose a specimen or two, did some research and decided it could only be honey mushrooms – a very delicious edible mushroom – so I chose to eat one. and see if I felt sick the next day.

Fortunately, I didn’t: it was very tasty and slightly sweet. I decided to pick more and share them with my friends as a treat that would have been ignored and unused otherwise.

The following year I had dropped out of my course, at least in part because of a revelation about life that made me feel more connected to nature; I realized that I wanted to live in harmony with the planet rather than conquer it.


Compost John Cossham with worms
Animals are sentient beings – just like us (Photo: John Cossham)

One of the first big changes was to stop eating meat. I didn’t want to treat animals unfairly – they are sentient beings, like us. I had always been interested in the environment, but now I felt like I was part of nature rather than a stranger, studying it. I continued to read and learn about land issues and sustainability.

I started living in a small apartment with an open fireplace. I would visit builders’ dumpsters and pick up pieces of scraps of firewood to keep me warm. But I also found other things in the dumpsters – like furniture and clothes.

Soon I realized that the dumpsters behind the supermarkets had food in them, and that suited my low income. The financial benefits of the freegan lifestyle were obvious, but by the end of the 80s I was realizing about climate change and how waste was contributing to it.

I am 55 years old now and since then have lived a life centered on protecting the Earth, winning the Oxfam Carbon Footprint competition in 2008.

My definition of freeganism is maybe a little broader than others because it includes all kinds of different lootings, not just taking things out of the trash cans and dumpsters.

I feed in hedges, woods and fields, not only for food, but sometimes for other useful things. I often find logs abandoned by arborists, and sometimes take a few to dry them so they can burn cleanly on my smokeless wood stove, which heats my house and provides hot water for me and my family.

There are days when I cycle, unfortunately, I go to see road victims. Several times I tossed it in my bike trailer, took it home, and gave it a good start in one of my composting systems.

Roadside dumpsters are good for foraging in urban settings. Home renovations involve copper wires, switches, and outlets. These go to a metal merchant, and I go get money for them.

In addition to that, I participate in a pick-up organized with a group called Abondance. We will make a call for people who have more fruit than enough in their garden, for example, and when we get a positive response, we arrange to go and pick the apples and pears and give them to the banks. food and homeless malls, or anyone who wants free local fruit.

Last year we saved around 1.2 tonnes of apples – apples that would have simply rotted on the ground while locals went to a supermarket and bought imported apples in plastic wrappers. For me, this is terribly unnecessary. Foraging and freeganism are a way of living off the waste of others and what nature gives us.


Compost John Cossham
When life gives you fodder apples… make apple juice (Photo: John Cossham)

It seems obvious to do and it corresponds to my whole philosophy of life, which is to respect the planet and to live within its ecological limits. Usually we don’t; our world is based on fossil fuels and capitalism (which is inherently unnecessary and unfair). I made the decision to try not to play a role in this.

In the 1990s, I graduated in environmental health and am a qualified environmental health officer. However, this job was not in my ethics – so I am also a freelance children’s animator.

As Professor Fiddlesticks, I demonstrate circus skills such as riding a unicycle and juggling and I teach children how to make balloon animals. I only go to concerts that I can go to by public transport or by bicycle. Many performers would have a motor vehicle – but I have my bike trailer to transport my unicycle and juggling equipment.

In the balloon modeling workshop, I’ll say, ‘There’s a free balloon for whoever tells me how you recycle popped balloons’ – so I even do educational stuff in the show.

The answer, if you were wondering: you can compost it. They are biodegradable! All natural rubber products that are natural latex can be composted – rubber bands, marigold gloves, latex balloons, condoms, even hot water bottles. I’ll take home all the popped balloons from a party and throw them on one of my compost piles.

In just two years, the rubber will turn into soil that you can put in the garden and help grow something new.

There are so many myths about urban foraging – a common myth being that things that have gone in the trash are unhealthy. I’m saying you should make up your own mind and use common sense.

Supermarkets throw away dry food, herbs and spices, out-of-date canned goods and pasta every day – they can’t legally sell them, but it’s okay to eat. Whether it’s dried, preserved, salted, pickled or canned, it will last for centuries. I believe you can eat foods that have passed their expiration date as long as you are reasonable.

However, if something doesn’t smell good, or if it starts to ferment, it’s composting, then don’t eat it. Throw it in the compost!

I haven’t poisoned myself yet, and look how long I’ve been doing it! I’m not special, I’m not Mr. Incredible – I’m just an average human being who doesn’t want to see things go wrong.

It’s possible to get a lot of the things you need without buying them new – from charity shops, for example. I was visiting a friend across the country (by train) and left my dressing gown behind. I posted that I needed one in a local Facebook group, Zero Waste York, and soon after I was offered one, unused deep in someone’s closet. It gets the job done – and it’s better than buying one.

I started living by these principles so long ago that I can’t remember if anyone around me reacted negatively in any way, but these days there is definitely more positivity to it. About low carbon living. But if anyone were to criticize, I don’t care what other people think.

I save money, I help the environment and I live a perfectly fulfilled and happy life. Who can dispute this?

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MORE: 23 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle

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MORE: Here’s why – and how – we should compost our vintage produce


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