The New York City summer heat is one with little reprieve – an intense, pervasive humidity that overwhelms the metropolis for a solid month of fogged sunglasses, damp clothes and dewy complexions. All outdoor excursions must be punctuated with visits to the air-conditioned insides of a supermarket or fashion store, while the occasional late night shower makes for nature’s only pardon.
July 19th is one of those nights. Taking refuge under the awning of Greenwich Village’s New Valentino Market where our meeting has just wrapped up, members of the Freegan Trash Tour chat with fellow punters while the rain buckets down. It’s a mixed crew, with novices – take Chris, the bubbly scientific researcher who joined “just to see what it’s all about” – and repeat tourists alike.
The tour phase follows an introduction talk, during which freeganism advocate Janet Kalish is an impassioned yet gentle guide describing the philosophy of this environmentally conscious movement. “[Freegans] come from all different economic levels, all ethnic backgrounds, and all education levels,” says Kalish, adding that the freegan lifestyle varies – some choose not to eat animal products, some prefer to wear second-hand clothes. Essentially, the common goal is about reducing waste and minimising society’s environmental impact.
Widely talked-about yet often misrepresented (and sometimes for comic effect),tour organisers remain open to inviting media to their events. Indeed, tonight’s tour is shadowed by journalists keen to get to the inside story on freegans and their dumpster diving ways, where otherwise wasted foods are foraged from garbage (note to self: beware freelance photographers likely to sell your sweaty mugshot to a certain British news site).
We set off down Fifth Avenue, the air still textured with a swollen moisture that threatens to break once more. First up it’s Le Pain Quotidien on East 8th Street, a French-inspired bakery chain that has discarded a few bags worth of breadsticks and danishes. The next pit stop is Starbucks on East 14th Street and Sixth Avenue, where pre-packaged paninis (choose from ham and emmenthal, or tomato, mozzarella and basil) have been left at the door – not yet expired, according to the wrapping’s dates.
The biggest bounty is to be had at the Garden of Eden produce market, just off Union Square on East 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. The repulsion over actually rummaging through piles of rubbish, warm with the heat of the concrete pavement and coated with tonight’s deluge, is apparent – there’s an extended, silent pause while the group awaits the bravest member to step forward.
“Well, let’s get in there!” Kalish encourages, one punter suddenly arm-deep in a giant dumpster. An intuitive production line follows – one person delves through the bags, another clears an area to arrange the goods, the rest carefully sorting through each discarded gourmet dip, near-off cheese or slightly bruised apple.
Within minutes, a smorgasbord or fresh fruit, vegetables and packaged goods materialises on the footpath. Kalish explains New York is the ideal city to hunt for food – the lack of space means all garbage is left outside on the footpath, awaiting collection in the wee hours.
“This tour is nothing special,” says Kalish. “This waste is every night, six nights a week, all over the city, the country, and in other countries, too.” It’s a reality check that the thrill of the trash tour – an alternative, after hours look at one of the most exciting cities in the world – only momentarily diverts from the much bigger global waste problem.
It’s nearly midnight. The skies start to rumble, and we dash off through the rain, clutching a baguette under one arm and a handbag bursting with rescued bananas.