SINGAPORE: He spots an open cake amid the used cans, old clothes and other rubbish. “There are three rules when it comes to eating food from a dump,” explains Mr Daniel Tay, 38, as he puts them into action.
First, he examines the cake for mould, then sniffs it and finally licks it. This time, however, he does not take a nibble as he usually does when testing whether such scraps are safe to eat.
Something else catches his eye. “Ben and Jerry’s!” he exclaims, before fishing out a pint of half-eaten ice cream. “It’s still cold. It has ice crystals on it."
He adds triumphantly: “Some people from our community said that I’d never be able to find ice cream!”
He is referring to the dumpster-diving community who forage for food and other items. That night, cake and ice cream are not all that he finds: He also rescues untouched mango pudding in cups.
On another occasion, while out scavenging with a group of 16, he digs through bags of trash to get to half-eaten chicken wings. “They’re in a box, they should be fine,” Mr Tay says nonchalantly about eating the drumsticks.
The thought is enough to make most stomachs churn, but he insists that such a reaction is psychological.
Not too long ago, he found a box of Essence of Chicken that expired in 2005. After applying the three rules of dumpster-diving, he gulped down a “perfectly fine” bottle. “Expiry dates are for retailers … not for consumers,” he says.
Mr Tay is a freegan, from the words “free” and “vegan”, which the dictionary defines as a person who rejects consumerism and seeks to help the environment by reducing waste, especially by retrieving and using discarded food and other goods.
Or as he puts it: “Freegans are people who spend very little money, and they want to try to rescue and reuse the stuff that people throw away.”
When it comes to food, for instance, he does not spend a single cent, although dumpsters are not his only source of subsistence.
“I get my food from my (three) neighbours, their leftover food – food that’s perfectly fine to eat but … they have too much, they can’t finish,” says Mr Tay, who lives in a three-room flat in Ang Mo Kio.
DEPRESSED OVER MONEY WORRIES
His freegan lifestyle of the past year has saved him not only money but also rescued him from depression.
The chemistry graduate was working for a non-profit organisation from 2005 to 2010 when he first began to worry about money. His salary had not increased much, and he felt that he “wasn’t earning enough”.
He thought to himself: “In future, if I’m going to get married, have my own family, how am I going to have more money? So I started learning about money.”
He was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 2009, triggered by that very worry.
A year later, when he got married, he became a financial planner. But while he soon had clients telling him that his help gave them financial “peace of mind”, that same goal still eluded him.
He kept questioning himself: “What’s wrong? How come I have all these back-up plans in place, I know exactly how I’m going to achieve all my goals, (but) I still worry about money?”
The turning point came last November, at an event he attended called an honesty circle, where people talk about money. The dialogue is run by social enterprise PlayMoolah with the aim of helping people develop a healthy relationship with money.
That was when he met his freegan mentor, Colin, whose opening line to the participants was, “I don’t worry about money because I get everything for free”, Mr Tay recounts. He added: “That hooked everybody.”
THE FREEGAN 'KAMPUNG' LIFE
There were three things Mr Tay learnt to get started as a freegan. The first was to ask his neighbours for leftover food. At the time, all he used to do was to greet them, so to break the ice, he said he was doing a project.
Not only did they agree to his request, they were also grateful not to waste food.
“It was a surreal experience – people giving me food and thanking me for taking their food,” he says. “Today, the relationships are stronger than before… because we’re more like a community.” Where once their doors were always closed, there are now days when they gather outside to chat.
“It’s a very kampung feel,” says Mr Tay.
The leftovers he gets from them are also more than he can finish. “I got kind of fat on all the rice I was eating,” he says wryly. “I started to eat more of the dishes.”
So as not to waste rice – last month, he had seven packets in his fridge – he decided to ferment it to make rice wine. “It’s quite nice-tasting,” he says of his first batch, and offers a sample.
FREE FRUIT FOR SHARING
Stage two of Mr Tay’s freegan journey was to go round the back of supermarkets and vegetable sellers to see what they had thrown away. The first time he did so, he saw more fruits than he could carry. “I was just speechless,” he says.
He was also nervous about bringing them home. “If you take from rubbish, (it’s) not stealing, right?” he asked himself. There were watermelons, papayas, pineapples, peaches, apples, pears and oranges behind just one supermarket. He took only a few.
Later, Colin told him that the food he left behind would be “going to the incinerator”. “The next day, I came back. I took everything,” recalls Mr Tay. But there was too much for him to finish eating.
That was when he started giving food away, to his wife and parents first, his neighbours next and then his friends, by starting the Facebook group Freegan in Singapore, which has close to 330 members now.
Since July, he has been leading weekly vegetable hunts in places such as Little India, Pasir Panjang and Toa Payoh, where there are wholesale distributors and “loads of food, good vegetables” are discarded.
The freegan groups are able to cart off only half of what they collect each time, donating a lot of their haul to migrant workers and charities.
Mr Tay’s efforts soon came to the attention of National University of Singapore assistant professor Andrew Quitmeyer, who used to dumpster-dive for fruits and vegetables back home in the United States.
The communications and new media lecturer has jumped at the chance to get his students to experience first-hand the problem of waste.
“Dumpster-diving is a much more common thing in the US among activists and volunteers, but nobody in Singapore I knew had seemed to have heard of it, much less actually do it,” he said.
“My students thought it was cool but still seemed shy about it.
But once they heard their classmates went and heard their professor was jumping into dumpsters, finding food and electronics to donate, they quickly understood that they, too, could help.
"It gave them a lot of agency," the lecturer said.
On one recent veggie hunt in Dunlop Street, the group of NUS students were shocked at the amount of fresh food, from kangkong to spinach to potatoes, that had been thrown out.
“We saw long beans and stuff like that (which) we could have taken home, but because (they weren’t) disposed of properly, then it resulted in food wastage that even we couldn’t help,” said Ms Roe Curie, 23.
Mr Tay, who now gets invitations to speak on eco panels, believes that consumers can make a difference.
“If consumers make it known to the businesses they patronise that they’ll buy ugly fruits and imperfect vegetables, then why would supermarkets and sellers not want to sell them?” he says.
“I don’t have that power, unfortunately, because I don’t buy anything.”
TREASURE - AND SECRETS - IN THE ESTATE DUMP
Mr Tay is not kidding about forsaking purchases these days.
Cans of abalone that he says retail at S$85 a can line a cupboard in his home, a find he made during the third part of his freegan journey: Walking around public estates to look for what people dump.
His home is a treasure trove of other people’s trash. There is a telescope in “perfect working condition” in one corner, folded chairs stacked against a wall, and a fish tank that is now his indoor garden.
He has a coffee machine that he is proud of because it reminds him of a bygone era when things were made to last. “Dumpster-diving is really like present-day archaeology,” he remarks.
You learn things like why a Philips coffee maker that was made in Singapore in the 1980s still works, but something that was made in 2010 in China cannot.
"It’s not just the difference between Singapore and China. It’s about the quality of parts. Things today are designed to fail after a certain number of years, so that businesses can continue to sell stuff.”
One of his rooms is the “Freegan Room”, with four washing machine boxes - two filled to the brim with bits and bobs. Wires, toiletries, beauty products, books, lamps, speakers and fans are lying around. “I’m clearing out stuff today,” he says by way of explanation.
He has even found folders of client information from an insurance company – “that’s dangerous” – and information about a patient who had a lump in her breast and was recommended a mastectomy.
“Everything was there – IC number, whole reports,” he says. “I’m definitely not going to that doctor… I know this is important for clinics because some of my friends who are GPs tell me that (patient) confidentiality is of utmost importance.”
WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF HIM
When he goes out dumpster-diving, which is twice or thrice weekly, he is armed with his custom-made trolley, a trolley bag and scissors, but no gloves.
Pointing to a headlight, he adds: “Before I used this, I was using my handphone, but I was always terrified of my handphone dropping into the trash, so this is better.”
WATCH: What he finds amid the rubbish (6:22)
He is, in fact, “averse to terrible-smelling stuff” and avoids refuse disposal areas with a whiff of rotting food as well as bugs.
“(But) not all bins smell bad. Some smell quite nice because people throw away detergents and shampoo bottles,” he says.
Initially, he also wondered what people would think of him rummaging through rubbish.
Maybe he has fallen on hard times, or maybe (he has) got some kind of mental illness … That was my own impression of myself as I was doing it.
“After a while, I started to realise that nobody cares. Nobody looks at you. You’re invisible to them," he says.
Human resource specialist Lim Wensu, 29, who has dumpster-dived with Mr Tay, is all praise for his open-mindedness and sharing of knowledge with others.
“It takes guts to do it, and how he started on dumpster-diving was pretty amazing for me, given we tend to save face in Singapore society,” she said.
While some people would have negative perceptions about those they see dumpster-diving, Mr Tay says one of the freegans he knows is a retired millionaire: “He does it because it’s damn fun, and because you save a lot of money.”
MONTHLY SPENDING HALVED
Sales and marketing manager Tiew Xin Yi, 24, can attest to that. She started dumpster-diving in April because it sounded interesting and now likens it to a treasure hunt.
“I’ve also managed to reduce my living expenses and impulse buying,” she said. Her monthly expenditure, inclusive of transport and bills, has been halved from S$800 to S$400, “sometimes even dropping to S$300”.
She has brought home half-used make-up kits, such as a blusher palette, as well as stuff for her mother, who was admittedly a bit superstitious at first.
Older people have the perception that if you wear someone else’s shoes, for example, the spirit will follow you home.
"But now she uses small things that I bring home, like bags and stationery," said Ms Tiew.
Good shoes are one thing Mr Tay appreciates, as he walks a lot, and after he became a freegan, he started coming across pairs of them.
“So I started to wear the shoes that I found … And you upgrade as you go along. So you start with Bata, then you upgrade to Sparx, then you upgrade to Timberland,” he says.
Recently, he found a big plastic bag at a void deck. Inside, there were six pairs of shoes, including from Clarks and Dr. Martens.
His monthly spending has dropped from S$2,000 to S$1,100, comprising S$500 on his mortgage, S$200 on insurance, S$200 on a long-term savings plan and S$250 “on everything else” – transport, utilities, Internet and mobile. His one “luxury”: S$50 on his pets.
BEING HAPPY WITH VERY LITTLE MONEY
More importantly, he has not had a depression episode for more than a year because of what he has learnt: “Having not enough money and the fear of having not enough money are two separate things.”
He says: “Since I became a freegan and gradually adopted this way of life, where I use very little money and end up with a lot of savings, (money) is no longer a trigger for me.”
Part of the realisation that he “can be very happy with very little money” came from collecting so many items from dumpster-diving that he has had to give away “90 per cent” of them.,
The more I give, I find that there’s less that I want. I can’t explain the mechanism. I don’t know why … All my needs and wants are met.
He has donated items such as prams, umbrellas, Tupperware, clothes and stuffed toys to migrant workers – enough for them to fill washing machine boxes of their own to send back to their families. And he has opened his home for them to take more.
“I don’t give money to charity anymore, I give thousands of dollars worth of merchandise to charity,” he adds.
So where does he go from here, and where does he see himself five years from now?
He says: “(If) you had asked me one year ago, would I be where I am today, I’d have said no… What life has in store for you sometimes is way better than anything you could plan.
“(If) you asked me six months ago, where would the freegan movement be… I wouldn’t have been able to say that people are inviting me to sit on panels to talk about food waste. It’s beyond the realm of my imagination.”
For more unusual and inspiring profiles like these, check out CNA Insider.