The New York Times is fickle. In the last year, they’ve scared the pants off of New Yorkers by publishing scary articles about how bed bugs were spreading around the city and what you need to do if you find them.
So imagine my surprise to find that yesterday, Steven Kuritz published an article in the NY Times entitled “Not Buying It,” which celebrates the free-cycling frenzy out of the NYU dumpsters at the end of the semester. The article focuses both on this specific dumpster diving party, as well as a movement called “freeganism,” where people turn their backs on our consumerist society, recycle, and get things for free.
ON a Friday evening last month, the day after New York University’s class of 2007 graduated, about 15 men and women assembled in front of Third Avenue North, an N.Y.U. dormitory on Third Avenue and 12th Street. They had come to take advantage of the university’s end-of-the-year move-out, when students’ discarded items are loaded into big green trash bins by the curb.
New York has several colleges and universities, of course, but according to Janet Kalish, a Queens resident who was there that night, N.Y.U.’s affluent student body makes for unusually profitable Dumpster diving. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the gathering at the Third Avenue North trash bin quickly took on a giddy shopping-spree air, as members of the group came up with one first-class find after another.
Ben Ibershoff, a dapper man in his 20s wearing two bowler hats, dug deep and unearthed a Sharp television. Autumn Brewster, 29, found a painting of a Mediterranean harbor, which she studied and handed down to another member of the crowd.
Darcie Elia, a 17-year-old high school student with a half-shaved head, was clearly pleased with a modest haul of what she called “random housing stuff” a desk lamp, a dish rack, Swiffer dusters — which she spread on the sidewalk, drawing quizzical stares from passers-by.
Ms. Elia was not alone in appreciating the little things. “The small thrills are when you see the contents of someone’s desk and find a book of stamps,” said Ms. Kalish, 44, as she stood knee deep in the trash bin examining a plastic toiletries holder.
A few of those present had stumbled onto the scene by chance (including a janitor from a nearby homeless center, who made off with a working iPod and a tube of body cream), but most were there by design, in response to a posting on the Web site freegan.info.
This would all be great except for the bed bug factor.
I see a need for public education here. If anyone should already have been given some information about bed bugs, it’s the janitor from a homeless center. Or perhaps he does know about bed bugs, but thinks the relatively well-heeled NYU dorm inhabitants would not be afflicted. (But then, he doesn’t know much about bed bugs.)
According to the article,
The site (freegan.info), which provides information and listings for the small but growing subculture of anticonsumerists who call themselves “freegans” — the term derives from vegans, the vegetarians who forsake all animal products, as many freegans also do — is the closest thing their movement has to an official voice. And for those like Ms. Elia and Ms. Kalish, it serves as a guide to negotiating life, and making a home, in a world they see as hostile to their values.
Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism. They forage through supermarket trash and eat the slightly bruised produce or just-expired canned goods that are routinely thrown out, and negotiate gifts of surplus food from sympathetic stores and restaurants.
They dress in castoff clothes and furnish their homes with items found on the street; at freecycle.org, where users post unwanted items; and at so-called freemeets, flea markets where no money is exchanged. Some claim to hold themselves to rigorous standards. “If a person chooses to live an ethical lifestyle it’s not enough to be vegan, they need to absent themselves from capitalism,” said Adam Weissman, 29, who started freegan.info four years ago and is the movement’s de facto spokesman.
There are freegans all over the world, in countries as far afield as Sweden, Brazil, South Korea, Estonia and England (where much has been made of what The Sun recently called the “wacky new food craze” of trash-bin eating), and across the United States as well .
In Southern California, for example, “you can find just about anything in the trash, and on a consistent basis, too,” said Marko Manriquez, 28, who has just graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in media studies and is the creator of “Freegan Kitchen,” a video blog that shows gourmet meals being made from trash-bin ingredients. “This is how I got my futon, chair, table, shelves. And I’m not talking about beat-up stuff. I mean it’s not Design Within Reach, but it’s nice”
But New York City in particular — the financial capital of the world’s richest country — has emerged as a hub of freegan activity, thanks largely to Mr. Weissman’s zeal for the cause and the considerable free time he has to devote to it. (He doesn’t work and lives at home in Teaneck, N.J., with his father and elderly grandparents.)
Freegan.info sponsors organize Trash Tours that typically attract a dozen or more people, as well as feasts at which groups of about 20 people gather in apartments around the city to share food and talk politics.
Arrrggghhhhh! Trash tours!!! I wonder how many people have picked up bed bugs this way.
At the N.Y.U. Dorm Dive, as the event was billed, the consensus was that this year’s spoils weren’t as impressive as those in years past. Still, almost anything needed to decorate and run a household — a TV cart, a pillow, a file cabinet, a half-finished bottle of Jägermeister — was there for the taking, even if those who took them were risking health, safety and a $100 fine from the Sanitation Department.
Ms. Brewster and her mother, who had come from New Jersey, loaded two area rugs into their cart. Her mother, who declined to give her name, seemed to be on a search for laundry detergent, and was overjoyed to discover a couple of half-empty bottles of Trader Joe’s organic brand. (Free and organic is a double bonus). Nearby, a woman munched on a found bag of Nature’s Promise veggie fries.
As people stuffed their backpacks, Ms. Kalish, who organized the event (Mr. Weissman arrived later), demonstrated the cooperative spirit of freeganism, asking the divers to pass items down to people on the sidewalk and announcing her finds for anyone in need of, say, a Hoover Shop-Vac.
The food stuff really is not freaking me out. People have been doing that forever. But the act of standing in the dumpster is a dodgy one, and also much of this stuff — pillows, clothes, TVs, furniture — has got to be infested with bed bugs.
I am not hating on the freegans. I have a friend, a smart grad student, whose entire apartment was furnished with curb-found furniture. It was nice, too, seriously. And when I was a kid, my mom’s favorite bookcase came from the curb. (But both of those things happened before 1998.)
A year and a half ago, I would have been cheering too. Recycling, or free-cycling, if you will, is so green!
But lots of people in New York have bed bugs. Way more than you hear about. And I hear about a lot of them, every week. I’ve even heard of some in the vicinity of NYU. And why would that surprise you, since college dorms and residences around the country (and beyond) are becoming infested. Would it be possible that NYU had lots of bed bugs, since it is not only a college, but located in a very infested region? Quite possibly.
Dumpster diving, anywhere, is not such a hot idea. And if you find good stuff, I mean stuff that looks great–TVs! iPods! Really clean-looking mattresses! Be wary.
Sure, NYU students may have a lot of disposable income. But who throws away a working iPod?!? Who doesn’t have the space to carry an iPod? Think about it.
What’s greener than dumpster diving? Let me tell you: not getting bed bugs. Because getting bed bugs is the least “green” thing you can do. You’ll rue the plastic garbage bags and XL ziplocs and gallon ziplocs and pest control operators with sprays containing who-knows-what.
And the repeat visits from the PCO, and the extra laundry, and the extra laundry, and the extra laundry.
And if something should be too infested to treat: the destruction, the replacement, and so on.
Getting bed bugs is the one of the least green things you could do this year, and it’s probably one of the most expensive surprises you can have, save losing your job.
Insurance does not cover you.
So say it with me, anti-consumerists, “freegans,” thrifty free-cyclers, craigs-listers, salvation army thrift store shoppers, treehuggers, Al Gore-lovers:
Dumpster diving in bed bug city is not thrifty nor green. Things ain’t always what they seem.
I’d love to see people in hazmat gear carefully combing through the dumpster contents, isolating possible “good finds”. Inspecting them carefully, really carefully, taking them off somewhere, maybe even for treatment, and re-selling the stuff to people who care about the environment and have money to burn. It could even be done for charity–maybe to help others who need furniture and can’t afford it.
Whether your motivation is saving money, or saving the planet, or both, spreading bed bugs is going to sabotage your plans.
If you want to love the environment, as I do, and say no to capitalism, then do your best to educate yourself and others about bed bugs.
And avoid them like the plague that they are.