Taking a dive with the NYC Freegans

Ever since I began photographing again in 2012 at the ripe outdated age of 19, my main topic has been rubbish and every thing that comes with it. It could appear an odd selection, however it comes from my love for Dadaism (an artwork motion that performed with what’s already current and questioned a lot of the present artwork world) and the thought of a readymade (a time period first utilized by the French artist Marcel Duchamp to explain artistic endeavors he created from pre-existing supplies). When Duchamp flipped a urinal the other way up, signed it, and positioned it on a pedestal as a sculpture, he was primarily turning trash into treasure.

I’ve made it my responsibility as a photographer to doc such discovered artwork present in or from trash, and to share these works with the public. 

Trash buildup is unattainable to disregard residing in NYC (a unending supply of discovered objects!), so naturally, I’m additionally into all issues Division of Sanitation. DSNY has some very forward-thinking initiatives to deal with waste administration in New York, together with a zero waste by 2030 initiative. I spend a lot of time educating myself on what they do, and am continually shocked by what I come by on my Google deep dives.

One in every of their most unusual techniques of getting the phrase out is thru artwork and exhibition. Whereas in the midst of a trash-filled rabbit gap Google search, I got here throughout retired sanitation employee Nelson Molina, who curated Treasures in the Trash, a assortment of almost 40,000 objects found over his 34-year profession with DSNY. An article about his project had a line on “dumpster diving as an enviro-political act.” I shortly clicked on the hyperlink to that quote, and there I used to be launched to the NYC Freegans, a group of activists who scavenge totally free meals, normally from waste receptacles outdoors of shops and eating places, as a technique of decreasing consumption of assets. 


I at all times knew what freegans did however not why, and that’s a part of what fascinated me. There was a meetup web page (with almost 3,000 members) itemizing their upcoming occasions, each digital and in individual. I noticed that they had a Freeganism 101 & Trash Tour — a night time through which the freegans give guidelines, suggestions, and solutions on trash-affiliated inquiries to the public whereas visiting a number of places to dive. I knew I needed to attend. I despatched them an e mail to verify they have been OK with having media current, and we had a date!

Ursula was the host in cost on the night time of my trash tour; she’s the one I had been corresponding with beforehand. She instructed me to fulfill the group on the nook of forty fourth Avenue & 2nd Avenue at 9 p.m. with a masks and empty buying luggage. That’s Midtown East and never too removed from arguably the largest vacationer attraction of New York (i.e., Occasions Sq.), however simply far sufficient the place it’s inhabited principally by locals, not vacationers. Usually I would be preparing for mattress at the moment (early hen, I do know) however the freegans can solely dumpster dive at night time for quite a few causes: First, ready for shops to shut, and second, much less pedestrian visitors on the streets, which makes issues simpler.

Map of visited locations by freegans

All the places we visited.
Credit score: Bob Al-Greene

 Lots of people are in all probability asking the query, is that this legal? I did, too. The web has combined ideas and it in the end relies on the place you might be, however the NYC Freegans assured me that if you’re with them or following the guidelines, you might be secure from arrest.

On that night time, we did get some appears from the NYPD, however they didn’t appear to care sufficient to really work together. We additionally bought some appears from individuals in fancy clothes and accessories. I actually felt judgment. They didn’t essentially frown down upon us, however additionally they weren’t giving approval.

Ursula and our different host, Janet, shared three necessary guidelines earlier than we headed out. #1: Every individual in the group could individually dive, however what you discover shall be specified by a pile for the complete group to undergo collectively when everybody is finished diving.

Some places have been going to be a bit messier than others, relying on the choices obtainable, they defined. Typically produce and different objects are thrown out in neatly positioned containers inside a dumpster; different occasions the rubbish is encased in a unending pile of tied-up trash luggage. Rule #2 is to by no means rip the luggage, and at all times neatly tie them again up. And rule #3: For those who can, attempt to depart the location neater than the way you discovered it, in case one other individual can also be diving that night time. For those who arrive at a location the place another person is diving, allow them to end earlier than heading in your self.

Now that we have been well-versed in the fundamentals of freeganism, the group and I have been prepared to find all that New York (trash) has to supply.

Individuals pulling trash bags out of dumpster

Credit score: Molly Flores

freegans' hands searching through trash bag on ground


Credit score: Molly Flores

Two individuals searching through trash bags

Credit score: Molly Flores

What’s the most difficult-to-transport meals merchandise I would come throughout on this night time? For those who guessed soup of the day, you might be right. Our first location of the night was Well being Nuts, a well being meals retailer providing an array of soup, a lot of which ended up in the trash. I can not say these things went quick round our group, both. This was a second of training and publicity. As a frequent soup maker throughout the chilly months of winter who at all times makes an excessive amount of to complete, I’ll by no means have a look at soup the similar. No extra losing soup for me!

Stack of soup on the ground

Credit score: Molly Flores

stack of soup on the ground out of focus

Credit score: Molly Flores

We moved on to a couple of chain institutions, and I had a second of nostalgia digging by way of Dunkin’s trash. I fondly bear in mind calling it Dunkin’s Dumpsters as a bored and curious teenager of the suburbs as a result of the surplus of donuts obtainable of their rubbish after hours.

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

Bread winners!
Credit score: Molly Flores

Sadly, the abundance of jelly-filled and Boston lotions have been too squished to salvage, and nobody was interested by donuts combined with outdated espresso grinds. With sticky fingers, we moved on, becoming a member of the remainder of the group at Duane Reade. Right here, I wasn’t anticipating greater than some sketchy sushi and outdated Slim Jims. A shocker was the discovery of kids’s Tylenol and allergy treatment, presumably simply too near expiration. A number of individuals in the group took some bottles.

Bicycle basket containing children's medicine

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

At this level we have been attracting a crowd.

In earlier places we’d been frowned at, judged, or regarded down upon by older residents. However this time, a group of youthful (in all probability millennial) bystanders have been cheering and leaping for pleasure for our trash treasures. They appeared genuinely interested by what we have been digging for and what we discovered.

two men walking by Janet and other freegans

Janet will get interviewed put up Ess-a-Bagel dive.
Credit score: Molly Flores

Individual holding up medicine bottle surrounded by crowd who is clapping

Tonight’s wins have been in actual fact the youngsters’s treatment from Duane Reade.
Credit score: Molly Flores

These temporary moments of connection and happiness have been one thing I by no means anticipated to search out on a trash tour.

individual kicking up head of lettuce next to street sign

Fast spherical of lettuce hacky-sack?
Credit score: Molly Flores

As we reached our subsequent location, the Amish Market, Janet dispersed a provide of reused plastic luggage to the group. This was really our second go to to the Amish Market that night: We’d been by earlier, however they weren’t but closed. With staff giving us judgy appears from inside, we determined to return again later.

Janet standing behind abundance of found produce

Janet chatting with the group in entrance of the Amish Market.
Credit score: Molly Flores

Now, the timing was proper, and we had our largest discovery of the night time: apples, natural spinach, bell peppers, candy potatoes, natural kale, asparagus, carrots, and the listing goes on. The group pulled it out of dumpsters, trash luggage, and produce luggage, creating a huge pile of meals in the middle of us. It was a grocery haul match for a household of 20.

Trash bag containing abundance of lettuce

Credit score: Molly Flores

This stuff have been barely faulty, some with nothing however an expiration date matching the day of. I’m guessing that’s the cause they have been tossed. 

Janet took a second to make use of the bounty as a approach of speaking about the meals system in America, which she believes is constructed to worth revenue greater than care and compassion. Meals is simply too rattling costly, and feeding our individuals is seen as much less necessary. 

In accordance with a 2022 report from the waste management company RTS, 35 million individuals throughout America had meals insecurity earlier than the pandemic started, a quantity that is anticipated to rise to as excessive as 50 million this 12 months. In the meantime, “the United States discards extra meals than some other nation in the world: almost 40 million tons — 80 billion kilos — yearly.”

It may be overwhelming to think about this type of waste and its penalties, however listening to Janet’s phrases whereas standing round an overpriced pile of rubbish, now nugatory to the firm that priced it too extremely for it to have offered, actually put issues into perspective.

garbage bag containing multiple bagels

Credit score: Molly Flores

garbage bag containing multiple bagels

Credit score: Molly Flores

At the finish of the night time the group got here away with an unlimited haul. I have never gone again to dumpster dive myself, and I am unsure I ever will. However seeing trash is believing trash. Since that night time, I’ve made a acutely aware determination to do my small half, at the very least, to assist with the drawback of meals waste: All the time end my groceries. That’s one thing I would tried to do earlier than, however It wasn’t till I spent that night time with the freegans that I noticed how actually necessary it’s not to throw away what we’re fortunate sufficient to have.

Grocery store employee closing gate to store entrance

Closing Time.
Credit score: Molly Flores

shopping list of found food from the night

Buying Listing.
Credit score: Bob Al-Greene

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