Aliine Lotman (Anthro Dept, EHI, Tallinn University)
“Until the 19th century, the term ‘to consume’ was used mainly in its negative connotations of ‘destruction’ and ‘waste’. Tuberculosis was known as ‘consumption’, that is, a wasting disease. Then economists came up with a bizarre theory, which has become widely accepted, according to which the basis of a sound economy is a continual increase in the consumption (that is, waste) of goods” (Petr Skrabanek 1994: 29).
The activity of rummaging through rubbish for usable things is known by many names: dumpster diving, freeganism, skipping, recycling and so on. As the communities of people involved in this activity are not exactly homogenous, with a common ideology, it is not too certain where the different terms originate. Neverthess, I will denote here some of the connotations and ideas behind them.
Freeganism is often considered to be the most politically charged term in use. As the first known printed use of the word ‘freegan’ – the ‘Why Freegan? zine from the end of the 1990s – declares:
Freeganism is essentially an anti-consumerist ethic about eating; asking “why freegan?” is essentially asking “why not consumerism?” /…/ By not consuming, you are boycotting EVERYTHING! All the corporations, all the stores, all the pesticides, all the land and resources wasted, the capitalist system, the all-oppressive dollar, the wage slavery, the whole burrito! That should help you get to sleep at night (Oakes 1999: 3-4).
When the term freeganism is used, it is often in contrast to capitalism or about freeganism’s role in modifying it. The anarchist sociologist Jeff Shantz claims for example that freeganism is trying to evade capitalism by creating its own alternative economic system, inspired by Marcel Mauss’s conception of the gift economy (Shantz 2005). As such, the term might also be the most controversial one for being too strict to some and at the same too ambiguous to others (Gross 2009).
(See also the Sydney doco Bin Appetit (YouTube 30March 2010).
Dumpster diving might be the most clear and easily graspable term for the outsider: ‘dumpster’ as the garbage bin or container where the items are retrieved from, and ‘diving’ as the activity necessary to reach deep into the vast containers filled with goods. Dumpster diving or ‘dumpstering’ are probably the most well known terms in an international context, whilst others might be perceived as more local terms.
Skipping and skip dipping share the connotations of dumpster diving and are the not as politically charged as freeganism. The difference seems to be geographical – ‘skip dipping’ is a term with clear Australian origin (Edwards & Mercer 2012) whilst ‘skipping’ is the term I heard from my informants who were either from Great Britain or had learned about skipping there.
The word most commonly used in Barcelona is recycling (reciclar) which has its congruous words in the languages spoken in the community. In Estonian, for example, the word is ‘recyclima’ [risaiklima]. It can be said to have the same meaning as ‘dumpster diving’. In this posting I mostly use this term, as it is the one my informants most commonly use.
Approaching the bins
A young man, we shall call him Mateo, yawns and stretches behind his laptop. It has been a tiring day of idleness. He does not work in the strict sense of the term. Today has been a usual day: he spent a number of hours planning tomorrow’s dinner, as friends are coming over and he would like to cook something nice. He then played with his roommate’s cat for some time and had something to eat. For a few hours he focused on the Wi-Fi problem – the neighbours’ router seemed to be giving a weaker signal, so a few other neighbouring networks had to be cracked. Now, as noted, he is stretching his back. Suddenly he glances at the clock – it is almost half past eight! He rises at once and walks into the kitchen, reaching for two large grocery bags from one of the drawers.
Mateo was born and raised in the outskirts of Barcelona, in a neighbourhood similar to where he lives now – houses built on hillsides, a cobweb of steep streets intertwined with innumerable staircases, a population of mostly working class Catalans and immigrants. His parents are too, as he says, working class people, trabajadores. From his childhood, he remembers dumpster diving as a shameful matter – a question of pride and poverty; even children wearing hand-downs from older siblings were bullied at school, not to even mention families who went picking through garbage. Mateo did not start recycling himself before ending up in Amsterdam after he was thrown out of the apartment he rented in Barcelona. Once he returned to Barcelona, he simply continued to go recycling as he had in Holland.
We are walking uphill as he tells me this story of becoming a recycler. We take a sharp left turn and he points straight ahead: “See? There’s Día”. Día is the shop that we are heading to; its red sign in the shape of a percentage symbol can not be seen from this angle. I immediately recognise the cashier’s red uniform as he steps out of the door of the shop, dragging behind him a full container of biological waste. We start moving faster, as Mateo tells me that the lady standing right next to the shop window is also a dumpster diver, and not the most generous kind. We reach the containers at the same time with the middle-aged lady (I later find out from a Polish squatter that the lady is Russian). The cashier has brought out two bin containers, one biological – with the brown lid – and the other – with the black lid – mixed. The three of us flip open the lids. Mateo and I like to think of ourselves as recyclers with a lot of solidarity (a catchword among the anarchist-punk-okupa scene) running through our veins, so naturally we share all our findings with the Russian lady, who then melts up and offers us some of her own. All in all the result of this 15-minute walk and talk are for us: six packs (500 grams each) of some yellow sweet fruit unbeknownst to me; a lot of red peppers; some salad; a huge amount of carrots; a broccoli; a big bag of onions; a zucchini; five small yoghurts; and two bottles of Actimel. We head home with a big smile, because being able to not pay for our food makes us radiate with joy.