Image: For Rebecca, browsing Dumpsters also is a way to protest the country’s rampant consumer culture.
James Cheng  /
For Rebecca, browsing Dumpsters also is a way to protest the country’s rampant consumer culture. She has salvaged furniture, clothes, art supplies and even appliances.
By Allison Linn Senior writer
updated 6/3/2008 2:39:08 PM ET 2008-06-03T18:39:08

It’s an unseasonably cold day in Seattle, and Rebecca is standing in her kitchen, preparing for her regular Sunday afternoon outing. As she gathers her backpack and grocery bags, her dog sniffs around excitedly, anticipating the long walk and treats that await.

In the course of their errands, Rebecca and her dog will visit several stores and coffee shops, a bakery and a chocolate factory. But instead of walking in the front door, she plans to head out back and go Dumpster diving.

Rebecca, 51, owns a small duplex and has a job running an art program for a health care organization. She’s also an artist in her own right whose accomplishments include a piece that hangs in the Seattle Art Museum.

And she gets 99 percent of her food from the Dumpster.

“It’s so easy to eat for free,” she says. “The only things I buy are butter and milk.”

It’s no secret that American culture is a consumer culture. We like big cars, big houses and big bags of things bought at big malls and big-box retailers. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the few people who call themselves anti-consumerists, freegans, frugalists or just plain Dumpster divers. Whatever the moniker, these people delight in drastically reducing their consumer spending, finding life’s essentials at bargain prices or paying nothing at all.

“I like getting stuff free. It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Ran Prieur, 40, who lives in Washington state and whose extremely frugal life includes occasional Dumpster diving. “It’s kind of similar to what you get from gambling.”

It’s hard to say how many people are trying to live this way, but frugal communities say they are seeing more interest. A couple years ago, a group of friends in San Francisco made a compact to try not to buy anything new for a year; now there are “Compactors” all over the world. The Freecycle Network, through which people give away stuff they no longer need rather than trashing it, boasts thousands of participants.

Freegans — whose efforts to live outside the conventional economic system may include hitchhiking, foraging for food and eschewing regular jobs — say there is growing interest in adopting at least parts of their philosophy.

“A lot of people are recognizing that there are a lot of ways that people can provide for their needs,” said Adam Weissman, a spokesman for the main freegan Web site.

Being thrifty
Rebecca, who asked that her real name not be used because she worries she could lose her job if her employer knew about her Dumpster diving, doesn’t need to get food for free.

She says she likes the thrill of the chase, and the surprising bounty of good food she finds. And despite holding a steady job and having grown up in an affluent family, she says she sometimes worries she won’t have enough money. She also likes to “save a little here, save a little there,” so she can afford splurges like a laptop computer and keep funding her art.

For Rebecca, browsing Dumpsters also is a way to protest the country’s rampant consumer culture. She has salvaged furniture, clothes, art supplies and even appliances. Still, even she isn’t totally immune to the culture she avoids — feeling blue recently, she went in for a little retail therapy and bought a new pair of sneakers.

Rebecca grew up in Greenwich, Conn., the daughter of an ad man. As early as high school, she remembers searching through garbage while walking the streets of New York City. Her mother would walk ahead, pretending not to know her. Nobody else bothered her.

“That’s when I really started liking things cheap,” she says.

After high school, Rebecca went to art school, but in 1979, she decided to drop out and head to Seattle. Her artwork includes materials she’s found in the garbage or on the street.

To many first-time Dumpster divers, the most surprising thing is how much good stuff is out there.

Prieur, for example, says his trash bin excursions have netted him smoked salmon, high-end bacon, olive oil, plenty of produce and other goodies. Prieur, who owns a piece of land but has no permanent home, estimates that when he’s staying with his sister in Seattle, he gets 20 to 30 percent of his groceries from garbage bins.

His habit elicits mixed responses. A favorite item at his sister’s house is “Dumpstered” apple pie. But he’ll sometimes invite people over for dinner and get the cautionary response: “Just promise not to put any Dumpster food in it.”

Says Prieur: “There’s a big emotional thing attached to not eating out of the garbage.”

Baby squash, popcorn and granola
When Rebecca reaches the grocery store, she moves with purpose across the parking lot to a fenced-in Dumpster. With practiced nonchalance, she opens the gate and walks in, closing it behind her. On the ground, she immediately finds a bag of baby squashes. They go in the backpack to be steamed up for dinner.

Next, she hikes herself up and peers in the Dumpster itself. Out comes a bag of popcorn, a bag of granola and a package of rice. All are torn, but the contents appear clean.

“Aw darn,” she calls from within. “A box of chocolates — but they’re empty.”

Rebecca passes up pasta and a few other items, explaining that she prefers ready-made food because she doesn’t like to cook.

The granola isn’t her taste, either — she’s a self-described picky eater — but she can give it to her boyfriend.

She also passes up a bag of flavored potato chips, explaining, “I don’t like salt and vinegar.”

Climbing out of the Dumpster, Rebecca opens the gate again and heads out.

In 10 years of serious Dumpster diving, Rebecca says she’s never gotten sick eating food from the trash.

She has only occasionally been hassled by a store manager, but she will usually talk her way out of it by spinning a story that she recently lost her job. People sometimes lecture her, telling her eating out of a Dumpster isn’t good for her. She generally plays along with the spiel, “because most people assume that’s who you are — either homeless or mentally ill,” she says.

‘I hope that Starbucks has some decaf’
As she heads further into Seattle’s University District, Rebecca’s on the lookout for coffee.

“I hope that Starbucks has some decaf because I’m out of decaf,” she says.

But after rifling through several garbage bags, she only comes up with a pile of breakfast sandwiches. She feeds one to her dog.

In her escapades, Rebecca has found CDs, a $100 bill, an answering machine and a five-pound bag of coffee. It often amazes her to come across perfectly good things in the trash, and she will find herself speculating about what personal decision — a fight with a boyfriend, maybe? — would cause someone to throw out something like a CD.

Around the end of the school year, Rebecca will spend more time in the neighborhood near Seattle’s University of Washington to forage for things that people throw out when they move — art supplies, coffee makers, that sort of thing. She also likes to hit the fraternity houses.

“Good God,” she says, “they’ll throw out everything.”

251 million tons of trash
The same could be said for Americans in general. Americans produce about 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day — or nearly a ton a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

For many who get their essentials secondhand or for free, one motivation is that they are disgusted by such waste. But their lifestyle is dependent on the consumer culture that they reject.

If Americans didn’t demand pristine produce and bread baked fresh daily, there would be little for Dumpster divers to find. And if we didn’t lust for new couches long before the old springs had gone soft, and new jeans months before their current ones had developed holes, there would be little for thrift store aficionados and garage sale lovers to buy.

Frugalists say they there are plenty of places to find stuff, if you know where to look. They get things on the sidewalk, through Internet posts and at organized giveaway events.

Laura Thompson, 57, does most of her “shopping” in the bathtub, with a stack of catalogs that she never orders from. When she really needs something, she either goes to a thrift store or tries to find it for free. Recently she lamented that she needed a raincoat, and a friend who likes secondhand shopping gave Thompson the one she was wearing.

Thompson is most meticulous about one thing: paper towels. She’s had the same roll of Costco paper towels since March 2006, and she estimates that there’s still about an inch left. If a houseguest asks for a paper towel, they most likely will be turned down.

Thompson only uses paper towels for “icky” jobs, like getting oil off anchovies. She relies on rags and cloth napkins for most other needs. She does have a little bit of a cheat, though: If she goes to a restaurant and is given a stack of paper napkins, she will take those home and use them.

Thompson, who also lives in Seattle, has been trying to conserve paper towels for about 10 years, motivated by a combination of environmental activism and lifelong frugality.

‘Down to the underwear’
Jacqueline Blix and David Heitmiller once held high-powered telecommunications jobs and were self-professed yuppies. Then in the mid-1990s, they read a book called “Your Money or Your Life” and had a revelation: They could just stop working.

Since then, they have lived on investments, occasional sales of Blix’s crafts and, in recent years, Heitmiller’s part-time work as a handyman. They are so enamored of their simple lifestyle that the Seattle couple even wrote their own book about it: “Getting a Life.”

One day in early spring, Blix was dressed in a pink sweater, turquoise turtleneck, khaki pants and knit socks. Everything she was wearing had come from a secondhand shop, “down to the underwear,” she noted — except the socks, which were knit by a friend.

When Heitmiller asked his wife whether everything he was wearing had come from a secondhand shop, too, she looked him over quizzically and said she didn’t know what underwear he was wearing.

Blix and Heitmiller started their post-regular work life living on about $30,000 a year. Lately, their budget has crept up to about $45,000, largely because of rising costs for health insurance and a decision to eat more organic food. They also travel more often to California now to visit their grandchildren.

To maintain their lifestyle in a comfortable three-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex, the two have become avid secondhand shoppers, as well as what Blix calls “curbside shoppers.” That means that they find things, like their coffee table, sitting outside with a “free” sign on it. Other items, including a television and kitchen table, were inherited.

The hardwood floor in their house was salvaged from another house, and Heitmiller bartered his handyman skills in exchange for some leftover carpeting they used elsewhere in the house.

Blix keeps a list of things that they would like to have, and she says she’s often surprised at how things fall in her lap. Recently they were considering buying some items for their front yard when a friend called with some mulch to give away.

“If you put a need out there in the universe, you’ll be surprised,” she said.

Blix doesn’t think she spends more time shopping than most Americans spend at the mall — the very mention of which makes her physically shudder. The couple goes out for a meal about once a month, and they’ll occasionally visit a coffee shop. Heitmiller has a cell phone for his handyman business; Blix does not want one.

‘A leftover from previous thinking’
Blix, 58, and Heitmiller, 62, say that, in deciding to live simply, they also are forced to talk honestly about money, something many couples don’t do. Still, like any couple, they have the occasional financial disagreement. The difference is that their most memorable disagreement is one that most couples wouldn’t remember at all.

What happened is this: Blix took a Costco gift card she’d received and bought a new set of flatware, to replace the set Heitmiller had had since his first marriage in 1968, without so much as a word of discussion beforehand. To Heitmiller, it was an “oddity” that she would buy something new to replace something that worked just fine. To Blix, it was her money and she wanted new flatware.

On the rare occasions Blix has spent money like that, she calls it “a leftover from previous thinking,” when she was more beholden to money.

The idea of not working sounds great to a lot of people, but there are downsides. Health care costs have risen substantially, and without an employer the couple is left to foot the bill themselves until Medicare kicks in. They have a high-deductible policy that doesn’t cover prescription medication. 

Over the years, the couple also has noticed that they have grown away from many of their old friends, although now they have a new group of friends who think more like them, including those active in what is called the Voluntary Simplicity movement.

Blix says another problem she has is “time management,” meaning what to do with all the time she has because she doesn’t work. “You really are faced with, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ ” she says. “It’s something that I definitely work on.”

Three Dumpsters of bread
It’s looking more and more like rain as Rebecca walks along the water and through a park, pausing briefly to admire the view of Seattle’s downtown. The aroma of rosemary and yeast fills the air. She is nearing one of Seattle’s favorite artisan bakeries.

Behind the bakery sit three tan Dumpsters, each filled with nothing but bread — every type you can think of, bagged and looking as mouth-watering as they do on the shelves at Whole Foods. It doesn’t even smell bad here — the store’s other Dumpsters, containing actual trash, are around the front of the store.

Rebecca pulls out a loaf of ciabatta for herself, and then roots around for a whole-grain loaf for her boyfriend of 18 years. He’s not much of a Dumpster diver himself, but he will eat some things she finds.

A white hatchback pulls up and three young guys get out and head for the Dumpsters. Methodically, they begin gathering bread for themselves and their friends. They pause, arms and mouths full of bread, to discuss the merits of ciabatta vs. olive bread. No one comes out of the bakery to bother them.

Next, Rebecca heads toward an outpost of the local food co-op. Behind the shiny new building are two large Dumpsters, and next to those someone has set aside produce boxes. Rebecca says the good fresh fruits and vegetables are usually in there, but today they are empty. No matter; hiking herself up on the large Dumpster, she finds the mother lode — a breakfast burrito, samosas, pulled pork sandwiches and vegetarian burgers, all individually wrapped in tinfoil and some still warm. They aren’t set to expire until the next day.

“This is a nice catch today,” she says.

It’s raining as she begins the long uphill trek back to her house, her backpack filled with enough food to last a couple of days, until her next trip through the city’s Dumpsters.

“I’m a working girl,” she says. “I have a job. I own my own house. And I Dumpster dive. So there you go.”

© 2013 Reprints

Video: All in a day’s Dumpster dive


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