Uh-Oh, I Think I’m a Freegan

by Katy on November 2, 2015 · 56 comments

I worked one of my long 12-1/2 hour RN shifts at the hospital yesterday and along with my tired and draggy body, I brought home a fancy Asian pear and a bagel with creme cheese. How did I end up with these free goodies? A doctor brought in a big box of bagels and creme cheese for the nurses, and the pear was a thank you gift from a family whose newborn I’d helped.

Both items went into my son’s school lunch this morning. I joked that “I was becoming a freegan.” And when he asked what I was talking about, I answered that “a freegan is someone who never pays for anything.” He then asked if “freegans refuse to accept money?” to which I replied “no.”

I thought this was a very astute response, and it’s been swirling around in my head ever since. If somebody wants to get everything for free, shouldn’t they conversely refuse to accept money? I make an effort to pay it forward when I’m on the receiving end of generosity. I participate in a Buy Nothing Group, and look for opportunities to give as well as receive. Over the past week I’ve given away a fancy bar of Whole Foods soap and a cat scratching post.

Of course this is all theoretical, as mortgages still need to get paid, as does health insurance; and last time I checked, my son’s college tuition could only be paid with money.

But there is so much excess in our modern consumer driven society where people replace perfectly good items simply because they’re tired of them or they’ve become dated looking. New things are being manufactured at such a rapid rate and available for such a low cost that they’re no longer valued. I brought home a brand new looking towel last week that thousands of people probably walked past. (I waited a day to take it, as I wanted to give the owner a chance to track it down.) A towel. A washable towel. A towel than has since served as a barrier between my son and our fabric car upholstery after an impressively muddy soccer game. A perfectly functional item that others chose to ignore.

There is an overabundance of stuff out there in our world, and there simply aren’t enough people willing to accept anything they deem to be less than perfect. Even on the Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook group, some reponses to my towel rescue was just a straight-up “eeuuuw, that’s gross.”

Yes, I bring home and accept free stuff when it crosses my path. I’m someone who’s deeply bothered by our consumer driven, throw-away society. So let’s all make a commitment to repair instead of replace, make do with what we have and refuse to get sucked into momentary trends. (I’m looking at you, Target with your never ending mad-for-plaid commercials!) Be that person who can see diamonds in the rough. Accept free stuff and find new homes for your unwanted but still usable possessions.

Sorry Target, I do my shopping at the curb instead of your big box store. I guess that makes me a freegan. Well . . . . except that I do accept money for work. I guess I need to put some effort into getting our mortgage company and the local universities to opt into this whole freegan thing.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

Sofia @ Currentlylovingsimplicity November 2, 2015 at 12:40 pm

I’ve recently made a commitment to mend my clothes when they wear and tear. I’ll probably wear things twice as long now, which makes such a difference!


Katy November 2, 2015 at 12:46 pm

It’s mostly very simple, isn’t it?


A. Marie November 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Loud cheers!! The day that trashpicking and other forms of freeganism are outlawed will be the day I start practicing civil disobedience. Been doing this since my college days (and, hey, those are 40 years ago by now). I don’t take witless chances–no opened food unless someone I know personally gives it to me, no reaching into things that might contain broken glass, etc.–but I agree that a lot of folks pass up perfectly reusable things because of the “ewww” factor.

And, as Katy also reminds us, I’m also careful to find good homes for the stuff I can’t use. It’s a two-way street, but neither of those two ways should go to the landfill.


K D November 2, 2015 at 1:11 pm

I am increasingly concerned about how much in our society is disposable and the environmental (and financial) cost. I abhor food waste, especially when it’s because people are picky about what they eat. Like you, I hate to see things go to the landfill because someone wanted something new and can’t be bothered to find a new home for their discards. Sometimes I feel as if most Americans are living in the twilight zone (or maybe I am, given how out of step I feel with mainstream America). Continue on Katy, you are saving both the environment and your pennies.


Kristin November 2, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Thanks for this post Katy. I didn’t know I was a freegan and now I do. I also love giving things away that are useful to someone else. One lady was super generous and gave me a changing table and a bunch of girls clothes for my best friend who is having twin girls. Very thought provoking post. Thanks again.


Mimi November 2, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Why is a found towel gross? If it was their own towel that got dirty, wouldnt they just wash it and reuse it again? What’s the difference?


Mariana Cisowska November 2, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Dear Kathy,
I always wonder how to ‘convince’ the other ‘half’ to be on the same page. My DH is sort of thrifty (to please me which I appreciate), and does like sales and clearance products instead of paying full price but the frugal mentality is just not there. No matter how much I ‘try’ to convince him. I get so excited when I get free things, even if it is a pencil or a pen, a notebook or yes, a free bagel. He does not.
Is your DH as much of a non-consumer advocate as you are?


Laure November 2, 2015 at 1:48 pm

The Freegan groups I know of are officially organized groups of people under that name who source all of their food from dumpsters (mostly grocery stores and restaurants). I thought from your title that you had joined such a group!
I’d gladly take home a bagel and cream cheese…but pulling loose lettuce out of a dumpster? I guess that’s where my selective squeamish line is.


Jane F November 2, 2015 at 6:10 pm

Yep – was pretty sure that Freeganism was primarily defined by feeding yourself through dumpster diving (usually from grocery stores that toss perfectly good food past its “sell by date”)


Deborah November 3, 2015 at 5:39 am

That was what I was thinking too. Accepting a bagel and pear that someone bought explicitly for you isn’t quite the same as the “make use of anything that would otherwise be wasted” ethic.

That said rescuing things from the curb totally counts, and your blogs have been inspiring in sharing the word out that these rescues are not only acceptable but even the right thing to do. Even my husband recently got involved when he spotted a tshirt crumpled on the sidewalk that was the perfect color for the rag rug I’m currently working on. 🙂


Katy November 3, 2015 at 9:00 am

It’s the bagel and pear that prompted the conversation. They alone doesn’t exactly make me a card carrying freegan. I cleaned one of my mother’s guest cottages last night and brought home single-ply toilet paper that my mother didn’t like, a fancy salt grinder, paper bags to make microwave popcorn and a Starbucks code for my husband to use. When tenants leave food behind I almost always bring it home for my family to finish. I pick up hair bands from the ground and scored a cheap pair of ear buds from the street a few weeks ago, which was great since mine have disappeared.


Mandy November 2, 2015 at 1:57 pm

I bought my plaid scarf at the local thrift shop…no Target plaid for this girl! (That whole thing is hilarious to me…they even have plaid bottles of mouthwash!)

Also, I love freeganism. I learned from a freegan expert, so it’s definitely not loose lettuce in the trash, more like fancy cheese and organic fruit and a rotisserie chicken or two. 🙂


trish November 2, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Thank goodness for like minded people. It makes me feel slightly less alienated from society.


erin brain stead November 2, 2015 at 2:32 pm

I totally agree with picking up towels. I’ve come across a perfectly usable wash cloth and hand towel on different occasions.
I figure they are getting washed, it’s no different than what you’re using at a hotel. (Which if one thinks about it, it’s super random to pay so much money to sleep on a ‘used’ bed!)


Kim from Philadelphia November 2, 2015 at 2:50 pm

“Down with Target,
Down with Target!”

I’m a huge fan of barter and swap. I wish more people would be open to exchanging goods for services or services for services!


Linda M November 2, 2015 at 3:07 pm

Yay, Kim! I so agree….I wish the barter and swap concept would become the norm. When you ask someone if they would like to barter…not talking merchant, talking an ordinary citizen….they look at you like you are speaking a foreign language. We all have skills and stuff that others could swap for their skills or stuff. Guess we need to do a better job of educating others on that.

I, too, enjoy sharing my no longer needed things….and luv me some freebies:)!


Vickie November 2, 2015 at 3:01 pm

My daughter and I are occasional freegans too.
Over the weekend one of her neighbors put a box on the curb with a perfectly good, year old Eureka bagless vacuum cleaner in it. The sticker on the box said October 2014.
So DD brings it home, washes the filter & basket and runs it. There was a burning rubber smell, but we found it was only because the roller had thread and twine wrapped around it. We cut it off, she ran it again and no smell!!
Now she has a practically new vacuum cleaner for nothing. Yay!

I’m thankful to all those people out there who leave stuff for the Freegans in the world!


Betty Winslow November 2, 2015 at 3:32 pm

Today’s freegan win – a friend whose husband needed low cardio exercise after a bout of serious illness, but is now back to running and such, GAVE me a $130 ellipical exercise machine, since they no longer needed it. (She was selling online for $15, but when she saw I was interested, she said, “Please, just come get it off my porch!”) So excited, it’s just what I needed to get my energy level and qweight under control!! ( think I’ll bake her family some brownies as a thank you…)


Amanda S @ Passionately Simple Life November 2, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Yay for free stuff! It makes me happy when something free that is needed appears out of nowhere. Our dishwasher was a Craigslist find and some people would find that kind of weird, but, it looked in great shape and for an awesome price, why not? Throwing it out would have been blasphemy!

But I do have to get used to saying no every now and then…


Katy November 2, 2015 at 4:04 pm

My dishwasher was a Craigslist find as well. Fifty bucks it’s never given us a day of trouble, even though it’s . . . gasp white instead of stainless steel.


Melissa November 2, 2015 at 6:34 pm

When we moved into our current home 7 yrs ago, it had a tiny stainless steel kitchen sink & a dishwasher that was more of a dishrinser. I found a lovely & huge Swan Stone sink for $40 on Craigslist and a Kitchen Aid dishwasher for $50. When we arrived to buy the items from the woman she had her whole kitchen torn apart. She was “so sick of bisque!” I’m happy to report that her bisque cast-offs are still going strong (and looking great) in our house.


Jennifer November 2, 2015 at 4:41 pm

I am very intriqued by freegans and love to read articles about their lifestyles. I think it’s important to note that in places like New York and also on college campuses freeganism is not only trendy but most of the freegans eat out of grocery dumpsters to take a stand against food waste. Lots of freegans make modest incomes. If you get a chance watch some of the you tubes about freegans. The food they get is sometimes very pricy high end stuff. The rule is when you dig thru a trash bag you are to leave it better than you found it and to not take more than you can eat to leave plenty for others. It’s just very enlightening to learn about this lifestyle and although I’m not digging in the trash for my food I respect the ideas and am trying to use some of them in my daily life.


Connie D November 2, 2015 at 4:55 pm

My brother, who lives in a college town in Oregon, recently picked up one of those stadium chairs in a bag that had been left by the side of the bike path for a week. The same day he also picked up a nearly-new Carhart jacket that had been laying by same path for over a week, including two rainstorms. He took both home, cleaned them up, and will make good use of them. Heck, he even goes through abandoned homeless camps and finds bicycle parts and BBQ tanks that are perfectly usable once he removes the weeds growing up around them and cleans them up. He is my freegan hero (after Katy, of course)!


Katy November 2, 2015 at 5:17 pm

I like your brother!


Robyn Buck November 2, 2015 at 4:57 pm

I love your blog Katy. On reading today’s post I wondered how you feel about disposables in your work. I am also an rn and a midwife but retired. I did my nursing and midwifery training over 40 years ago. Then the nove to disposables was happening. We had glass syringes, which were much better to use, and disposable needles were beginning to be used. When i have any face to face contact with the hospitals, etc, the amount of disposables is mind boggling. I would be interested in your thoughts if you have time. Thanks.


Ruth November 2, 2015 at 5:32 pm

I’m also an RN in an emergency dept in Australia, our health system is so wasteful, they recycle nearly nothing, I’ve even tried to set up a system where items out of date but still packaged or opened by mistake but still good are all sent overseas however when I asked my nursing director I was told this is the same as stealing and is a dismiss able offence , they would rather throw stuff out, we try to use the things for education but there’s only so many dressing trays one can use.
All our scissors , forceps, laryngoscopes etc etc are now one use only , central sterilising is rare…
We don’t even recycle paper….. Hospitals are very wasteful


Sheila Bauer November 2, 2015 at 5:05 pm

We took our daughter up to college in Tacoma last August. We had been collecting bits and pieces of things she needed all summer. We still had a list of needed and a few “wanted” items, but I had gotten a note from her school saying that they would have a “garage” sale (the Grizzly Garage – cute, huh?) on move in day. Students donate their items at the end of the year & they are cleaned and organized over the summer & resold for a really good price. I told my husband & daughter “We are going to be first in line for this” . We were there right when they opened and we got everything on our list – microwave (her contribution to the dorm room), area rug, bulletin board, metal lock box (a “want item” retail about $200.00), three drawer plastic tower thingy, school T shirt & sweatshirt for 20 bucks. Not exactly free, but a really good deal! My daughter “got it” (she buys her clothes at thrift stores), but my husband was skeptical at first. Of course he is the ultimate minimalist who buys nothing, so what does he know? Anyway, I wish all schools did something like this. It’s a total win/win and a great way to reuse and recycle. Everything in that room was GONE in an hour.


Jane F November 2, 2015 at 6:15 pm

Love it! The Post Landfill Action Network is doing great work with students to bring programs like these to campuses across the country.


Laure November 2, 2015 at 6:26 pm

That’s wonderful. I have never heard of a school doing that…I wonder if student groups could arrange something like that on their own as a fundraiser for the group.


Sheila Bauer November 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Oh and the proceeds go to their community outreach programs and I like the idea of supporting that.


Canadian Girl November 2, 2015 at 5:12 pm

Had you not picked up that towel I am quite certain it would have ended up in a landfill so I am certainly glad that it has gotten a second chance because I think our landfills are full enough. It pains me to go into dollar stores and big box stores I am just overwhelmed with all of the cheap and useless stuff. Keep up the good work Katy you are an inspiration


tracy November 2, 2015 at 5:13 pm

In the last couple of months I have been able to get new bed frames for both my daughters, one a beautiful white sleigh bed and the other a solid wood IKEA bed both for free just by keeping my eyes open and being patient. It is amazing what you are able to get for free.


Melissa November 2, 2015 at 6:40 pm

My sister used to live in a low income apartment complex. Whenever I went to visit, I was appalled at all the perfectly good things that were in the dumpster–baby exersaucers, baby bouncers, furniture, etc. I once picked a perfectly good chair out of that dumpster. My sister was horrified. I took it home & used it as a desk chair for years.


Revanche November 2, 2015 at 6:42 pm

Rah rah for no more waste! Or reducing it anyway. I’m really happy that my husband has come around to my way of doing things: we use things as long as we can, then repair it if possible and keep on using it until it absolutely cannot function anymore. We don’t treat things as disposable if we can possibly help it (making exceptions for sanitation!), and it’s made a big difference in how we shop and spend. My sock mending is atrocious, though, so holey socks are now our hand sized blinds wipers and I haven’t yet found a use for expired baking powder but I’m not giving up yet.


Laure November 3, 2015 at 6:18 am

I’ve found with expired baking powder I can just use more of it. Coincidentally, I made muffins this morning with baking powder that says December 2013. It is still working perfectly, and I haven’t had to increase the amount I use just yet.


Revanche November 3, 2015 at 11:33 am

Is that so! I shall have to give it a try this weekend! How do you know if you need to increase the amount? Just trial and error?


Carolyn S November 3, 2015 at 9:29 am

Oh that’s brilliant! I’ve been eyeing my dusty blinds for a couple of weeks now trying to decide the best way to clean them. Now I know what to do with some of the holey socks that I think may be beyond mending!


Carol M. November 2, 2015 at 8:22 pm

There is another, I believe more important definition of freeganism. A freegan is someone who eats vegan unless the food is free because it’s being thrown away. A freegan thus lives a cruelty-free lifestyle while also saving food from trash.

As a vegetarian and often freegan, I’d like to encourage meat-eaters to consider eliminating or reducing meat. It’s environmental, but more importantly, the more people who choose vegetarianism, the more factory farms clean up their act. Factory farms are awful places.


Lindsey November 2, 2015 at 8:45 pm

I was leaving a job once and was asked what I wanted as my going away gift. That morning I had noticed that four rolling chairs were in the hallway, marked “Don’t Move, Waiting to be Trashed.” I had been using one of those chairs at my desk a few weeks earlier, when it was replaced with a new chair of a different color (they were changing all their décor). I said I wanted the chairs. They thought I was crazy but they put a bow on each one and gave them to me at my going away party. I was THRILLED and have used them for over a decade. And, the boss gave me a $75 gift card because that was how much they allocated for farewell gifts and they felt guilty giving me chairs that were about to be discarded! Double win!


Katy November 3, 2015 at 9:04 am

I kind of love this, especially since you got the chair plus an additional $75!


Amy November 2, 2015 at 10:34 pm

My sister lived in Barcelona, Spain where they didn’t have thrift stores – people would just leave stuff out on the curb. She called it her “basura (trash) runs” and she’d go out and see what she could find – and find she DID! Tons of clothing and housewares – free for the taking. That was a few years ago – I’m not sure how it goes these days, but you could furnish an entire house for free back then!


Katy November 3, 2015 at 9:03 am

Hmm . . . I wonder if that would offset the airline cost for a trip to Spain. 😉


Laura November 3, 2015 at 2:56 am

My freegan win this week – a perfectly new looking Systema food container that had been tossed in the garbage, contents and all. Contents looked fine but I’m not that game – they went to the worm farm and the container went through the dishwasher. Honestly, how hard is it? I despair sometimes when I see what gets casually tossed.


Katy November 3, 2015 at 9:03 am

When they clean out the fridge at work they toss the containers as well. I rescued a Rubbermaid container a few months ago that held some slightly moldy melon. It cleaned up just fine and now I have a running joke with a work pal where we offer each other “some melon, only a tiny bit moldy.”


Carolyn S November 3, 2015 at 9:43 am

They do that at my work too. I’ve come home with a couple of really nice Pyrex containers and a casserole dish just from keeping my eyes open on fridge cleaning day. I can’t believe people just abandon perfectly good dishes!


Lynda November 3, 2015 at 3:04 am

I’m sitting in my living room wearing a hooded sweat top; was walking to the train station 3 years ago and saw this abandoned item. As it was still there when I got back several hours later, reckoned it wasn’t going to be collected.
So it’s had 3 years more life with me. 😀


Katy November 3, 2015 at 9:01 am

Excellent! I’ve brought home a scarf, a bib, a comforter cover and knitted cap over the past few years. Just needed a good laundering.


AmyWW November 3, 2015 at 5:46 am

I was talking about something similar with my high school-aged son this morning. When I was a child, it was a big deal to get a balloon from the shoe store when your parents bought you a new pair of shoes, and no one but the birthday child got a present at a birthday party – you got a cupcake and maybe some ice cream and you played some “party games” like pin the tail on the donkey or musical chairs or maybe you just played tag. You got some candy in your stocking at Christmas and a chocolate bunny in your Easter basket. Now everyone, children and adults, get treats and gifts and expensive goodies all the time for no reason at all other than that they have an impulse to acquire it. As a society we’ve learned to give in to all our impulses immediately. You don’t have to wait until school is starting to get a new pair of shoes – you can get a new pair because you saw some you liked. Truly special occasions have to be over the top because you spend every other day of the year getting everything you could possibly want. It’s kind of sad, in my opinion. Nothing, no treat or gift or experience, is special or cherished any more just because there are so many of them all the time. Stepping down off my soapbox now. Have a great day, Katy!


janine November 3, 2015 at 7:01 am

My childhood experiences were quite different – back then my parents had just come through the Great Depression and World War II. They were into consumerism in a big way because the days of shortages were over. It was a time when only one person in the household had to work, medical expenses were reasonable and there was even much excitement over the availability of universal frozen foods. On the other hand, women and minorities were just beginning to assert their rights and there were deep divisions over civil rights. I have always thought this was the genesis of our great love affair with consumer goods which has now reached the breaking point with overflowing landfills and cheap imported good flooding the markets.


Is it a need or a want November 3, 2015 at 9:17 am

Amy, you must have grown up with me:)

My children are now grown and they frequently mention how we as a family never went out to eat. I said I never did when I was a child other than fundraising dinners my father’s Fraternal Sid Society put on with members from the old country. They do not mention this as a negative. They said that they actually remember the times when we did as it meant we had travelled to see family and celebrated.


Michelle H. November 3, 2015 at 6:22 am

My kids miss the bagels and cream cheese and other treats from my old office job now that I’m retired. I was the only one with little kids, and the only one willing to take stuff home. Catered lunches, retirement cakes, cookies and punch, I would take home whatever they were going to throw out.

When I first started working there I’m sure they all thought I was nuts, what with taking home the coffee grounds for compost, reusing manila folders, and my homemade note pad of a stack of paper with one blank side held together with a large clip.


Isabel November 3, 2015 at 7:46 am

Was looking forward to the yearly kerbside collection that usually takes place at this time … Unfortunately has been put off until early next year! Have put things out in the past but can only remember collecting a planter!
Have a friend who matches people up with things! I scored a super top good enough to wear to events and someone else was happy with something of mine weeded from my closet!


Is it a need or a want November 3, 2015 at 9:12 am

I like your ” matchmaker” friend . She obviously puts thought into her matches. Now that’s a frugal hobby that gives back to so many!

You are my people! Sometimes it astonishes people when you just model this behaviour. Gives them permission to follow suit if they wish.

One daughter is a dumpster diver.she frequently gleans cases of canned goods. Nothing wrong, maybe something spilled on the plastic wrapper or an end of box carton is ripped or one can slightly dented. She and her other friends find food, craft, clothing etcetera.
They dispose of the messy wrapping and bag the perfectly good cans for food banks, drop ins, shelters .


Jane F November 3, 2015 at 9:11 am

I think a few months ago you found a towel in a parking lot and posted about it on instagram and here. Later I saw an update on the facebook page of it all cleaned up.

While supportive of the theory, I was pretty skeptical until I saw the “after” photo. I don’t *think* the before and after ever appeared side by side on the same social media platform/blog.

Before and Afters are a favorite of mine and in this case could be *really* persuasive. Just a thought for a blog post. Thanks for opening my mind 🙂


Charli November 4, 2015 at 3:10 am

I work in a day procedure unit as an RN. A few of us nurses will clear out the fridges at the end of the day when we are on the later shift and take the days left over sandwiches home as they just get thrown out. My kids love freegan sandwiches in their lunchbox the next day. Better still I don’t have to make them. Why wouldn’t you?!


Bonnie November 4, 2015 at 6:58 am

Good for you – the great thing about frugality is that when you do get given something, you really appreciate it. Our office is laying on a chilli for us all tomorrow lunchtime – free lunch! Looking forward to it.


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