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Freeganism: the final frontier?

Amantha Bezuidenhout lived in the United Kingdom for two years with no job or any other source of income. For weeks, she did not spend a cent to buy food — yet she would eat like a king almost every day.

At midnight, freshly made pizzas, many of them botched orders, could be found outside an Italian restaurant down the road. If she was willing to travel a bit further, the Japanese restaurant in a neighbourhood nearby threw out individually packaged portions of sushi that went unsold that day.

Thirty-year-old Bezuidenhout is a freegan, which means she subscribes to an anti-consumerist lifestyle and tries to avoid buying anything. Rather than contributing to further waste, freegans aim to curtail garbage and pollution by reclaiming and using discarded goods.

“Everything you buy has a carbon footprint. Even vegans are part of the consumer cycle,” Bezuidenhout, who now lives Cape Town, said. “Freegan is the most ethical way you can live.”

In June 2007, New York Times journalist Steven Kurutz wrote a landmark piece about the movement, at a time when freeganism became increasingly visible in the West. Subprime lenders were going under, housing prices were beginning to crash and the global recession was soon in full swing, with homeowners defaulting on mortgages.

Kurutz wrote that freeganism grew out of the anti-globalisation and environmental movements, including groups such as Food Not Bombs, an organisation that shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in more than 1 000 cities around the world. Its roots lie firmly in the Sixties anarchist San Francisco-based street-theatre troupe the Diggers, who salvaged food from restaurant and supermarket overflow, cooked it and gave it away.

But in mid-2000 New York, this was not just about food. Kurutz described a scene where freegans rummaged through discarded goods, salvaging televisions, lamps, clothing, cleaning products, food and even a working iPod.

Bezuidenhout and her fellow freegans in the UK squatted in an abandoned London building, which came with electricity and running water. For food, “dumpster diving” or “skipping” (collecting discarded goods from behind supermarkets) was how Bezuidenhout stocked up on ­everyday pantry items. She even found a way around buying liquor, brewing alcohol from parsnips and Earl Grey tea.

Bloggers all over the United States and Europe have been documenting their attempts to live an anti-consumerist lifestyle. One of the best-known freegan bloggers is Daniel Suelo, who has been living in a cave in the Utah desert without money since 2000. He uses the free internet access at the local library to update his blog and forages for wild and domestic edibles, freely relying on the generosity of others.

“I live on waste: dumpster-diving, trash-can fishing, table-surfing and sometimes asking people and food-service institutions for extras and throwaways,” Suelo writes. “I also eat roadkill, if it is fresh, of course. I’ve eaten squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, and deer, so far.”

A 69-year-old woman from Germany, Heidemarie Schwermer, who also maintains a website, gave up using money 15 years ago, founding a swap shop and giving away all of her belongings. It was intended to be a 12-month experiment but Schwermer decided to continue indefinitely. She travels from place to place with a small suitcase, taking on odd jobs in exchange for necessities.

Bezuidenhout cannot “freegan” as she did in the UK in South Africa, because here most of the gastronomic excess that is still fit for human consumption is given to charities. She continues to work with the Cape Town branch of Food Not Bombs, which held its first event a year ago. Most recently, the group fed crowds at Occupy Cape Town but the frequency of their events depends on the availability of volunteers.

But, Bezuidenhout said, that was not necessarily a bad thing. “We just don’t have the same amount of waste. Overseas, no one would want your old stuff but here you would give it to someone who could use it.”

Although widespread poverty may not allow Western freegan-style opportunism in South Africa, there are other ways locals are boycotting the system.

In 2009, Adin van Ryneveld swore off cash for five years. Van Ryneveld, who calls himself “the no money guy”, holds down a job at Long Street Backpackers, where he receives accommodation, a bar tab, food and a bag of tobacco each week. Through something he calls the “talent exchange”, a complementary currency to another known as the community exchange system, which operates in many communities around the globe, Van Ryneveld plans to bring together an alternative economy that offers services in exchange for goods and services.

His company, Ubuntu Digital, aims to demonstrate the possibility of a hybrid economy — a fluid system that avoids using money but encourages the use of alternative, sustainable solutions. Its first demonstrations: five rooftop parties and an outdoor music festival will be held this summer. Entrance to all the events will be paid for with talents, so all guests must sign up to the community exchange system at www.ces.org.za and link up with others to exchange services for “talents”.

As the Occupy movement protests against economic and social inequality around the globe, Van Ryneveld hopes to convert supporters to his school of thought.

“Protesting isn’t enough. It is too passive,” he said. “We are fighting against the most well-designed machine that ever existed. The only thing that will work is if people show governments there are other, effective, ways to do things.”

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter for the Mail & Guardian

View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.

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Lisa Steyn
Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a masters degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen.

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