IN FOCUS: Fighting food waste and saving money - a week as a freegan in Singapore
Reporter Chew Hui Min tried the freegan lifestyle for a week, including dumpster diving and rescuing food, to explore how she can reduce waste while saving money.
SINGAPORE: On the first day of my week trying out the freegan lifestyle, I had free durian - which I took as a good sign.
While asking fruit and vegetable wholesalers for any items that could be rescued, my team of three volunteers picked up a few boxes of Mao Shan Wang that were near expiry and were due for the trash compactor.
For those of us who love the king of fruit, it was like striking the lottery, and the veteran food rescuers on the mission assured me that it was a rare find.
It was a morale booster for a morning spent loading and unloading countless boxes of fruit and vegetables that would have been thrown away otherwise.
That Wednesday (Jul 6) morning, roughly three tonnes of food was collected by the volunteers from the Fridge Restock Community (FRC) - a food rescue group - and this happens two days a week, every week. These go to dozens of locations each week to be distributed to the community, and to stock community fridges found all over the island.
I was there because I’d set myself the goal of being freegan for a week - to save money and reduce waste.
What is freeganism?
Freegans participate as little as possible in consumerism by limiting what they buy, be it food, clothes or other material needs.
They try to reuse what others discard to reduce waste and save money. It's also seen by some as a political movement that rejects the capitalistic economic system, overproduction and the waste it generates.
The movement was started in San Francisco in the 1990s and the first organised group of freegans formed in 2003 in New York City. The first freegan group in Singapore was co-founded by Mr Daniel Tay in 2017.
Foraging for what they need instead of buying new, freegans engage in activities like dumpster diving, rescuing food and bartering or sharing.
There is a range of freegan activities and people practise them to varying degrees - from the casual to the extreme.
After collecting the fruit and vegetables, the volunteers had about 15 minutes to go “shopping” - to bring back some of the produce we had gathered. This was what I was counting on to feed me for the next seven days.
RESCUING “UGLY” FOOD
I was already stockpiling food before the week started, fuelled by mild anxiety that I would go hungry if I could not buy food.
My starter pantry included three packets of instant noodles, expired chocolate and beh teh saw salvaged from the trash (more on this later) and cooked vegetables from a neighbour - which I had frozen.
I also squirrelled away rescued sourdough bread, which I sliced and froze in preparation for my week of eating free food. This was given to me by Mr Daniel Tay, an active freegan and food rescue advocate, when I consulted him about this project.
The irony is that I ended the week with more food than I could finish - and resorted to giving away food to my neighbours.
My haul from the food rescue mission on Jul 6 comprised green vegetables, bell peppers, okra, zucchini, radish, mushrooms, grapes, lychees, strawberries and other fruit.
I lugged more than 10kg of this bounty back on public transport, as being freegan meant that I couldn’t take taxis or private-hire cars.
Some of the vegetables were starting to go bad, and I had to chuck a whole head of Chinese cabbage as it was rotting from the inside, but much of the produce was just not the right colour or shape to be sold. After sorting and checking, more than 70 per cent was edible.
It’s one thing to hear that the food waste generated in Singapore last year was 817,000 tonnes - or about 12 per cent of the total waste generated here. But to see the volume of edible fruit and vegetables that was being discarded in just one day was a shock.
There were vegetables that would never see a supermarket shelf because they were yellowing or had black spots; bell peppers that were misshapen or not the right colour; ears of corn that were too short and didn’t fit neatly into the plastic trays they were sold in; leaves of lettuce too “old” to go into a salad packet; boxes of grapes that were “loose” and weren’t in a neat bunch; and all kinds of fruit that were rejected because they had blemishes.
This was the “ugly” food I would be eating for the week.
EXPIRED BUT EDIBLE
For the first three days, my diet comprised mainly fruit, vegetables and rescue bread.
I also received some baked beans and other sundries from an FRC volunteer who happened to have some rescue food in her car. She also gave me a tip to join a Facebook page for D2L or Divert to Second Life - a group that rescues leftovers and damaged or expired groceries from retailers, F&B outlets and other businesses.
This was how, mid-week, I snagged rice, biscuits, oats, granola, cranberry juice and potato chips at a D2L distribution. My diet immediately became more varied, with granola and oats for breakfast and quinoa and rice to go with my eggs and/or vegetables.
Those distributing the food warned us to check the expired items before we ate them, but they tasted fine when I tried them at home. To be safe, I would smell the food first, and wait after eating a small amount before I used the rest.
I tried a variety of new food and brands as I had to go with whatever was being given away. For one meal, we had mango rice gifted by a neighbour, and for another, we cooked Korean short grain rice (expired), which I had collected from D2L.
I never buy cranberry juice, but was surprised that I liked it, although another mystery juice packet that I picked up turned out to be horrible. The one thing I couldn’t get was meat, but I didn’t see it as a bad thing, as eating less meat is generally seen as good for health.
And what had to be sacrificed was convenience: Almost every meal was home-cooked.
While I saw cooked food and bentos being given away on sharing apps and was once alerted to leftover buffet food through another volunteer, one would have to reply and quickly collect the food within an hour or two - something that I found even harder to do.
When I was hungry while on an assignment outside, I couldn’t buy any food, and ordering delivery food was a definite no-no. After two days, I put a pack of biscuits in my bag whenever I left the house, in case I was tempted to buy food outside.
EATING IS A SOCIAL ACTIVITY
What I didn’t anticipate was how my boyfriend and my mother would react to my “experiment”, even though I kept telling them it would only last a week. “Weird”, “stubborn” and “obsessed” were words that I heard when I rejected food that they had paid for and offered to me.
In the end, I negotiated to eat out for two meals, paid for by my boyfriend, and to cook and eat two meals with my family with meat that they had bought - if they would leave me alone for the rest of the week.
I also helped them finish some perishable food in our pantry - as it seemed silly to generate more food waste while collecting rescue food.
Other than that, I can say that I managed to survive - and thrive - on free food for most of the week. On the menu were rescued buns and biscuits, corn soup topped with gluten-free tortilla strips, sambal okra and long beans, sourdough bread with baked beans, stir-fried greens for every meal, miso stew with rescued vegetables and pork (which my family bought), oatmeal and granola (with milk I had in the fridge), fried eggs and plenty of fruit.
And the three packets of instant noodles I had stashed away for an emergency remain untouched.
On that: Yes, I picked up those noodles beside a dustbin at the lift landing of a neighbouring HDB block, along with the beh teh saw, which I did eat for breakfast.
These were among the cornucopia of random items I chanced upon and brought home on two dumpster dives - one with Mr Tay and one on my own. Both times were before the week I officially tried being freegan, as I wanted to know how it worked, and to pick up anything I could use or eat before I started the week.
Each time, I went out with one empty shopping trolley and came back with two full trolleys - having picked up a second trolley on the way.
What were they filled with? A pot that was in good condition but had to be scrubbed as it was burnt, half-used cosmetics and skincare products, toys, used fabric and clothes, fruit, a skipping rope, a water dispenser and glass jars.
We also found food - the instant noodles (not expired), biscuits and chocolates, a bunch of bananas (blackened but edible), grapes, bread and cakes discarded in the rubbish behind a cafe. I only took things that were wrapped in a bag or sealed in a box.
I also saw but didn’t take: Bags, speakers, fans, fridges, sofa sets, tables and chairs, kitchen appliances … just to list some.
If I was a serious dumpster diver, I could furnish a home with the amount of discarded furniture and household goods we found just in the bin centres and void decks of the 10-odd HDB blocks surrounding my home.
According to Mr Tay, who used to dumpster dive but has stopped as he has “too much stuff”, this was pretty normal for most residential areas in Singapore. Again, I was aghast at how much waste there was.
And I saw myself in the rubbish I found, as there were things that I had thrown out without a second thought because it was easier to buy new, or a shinier, newer model had made its debut. Multiply the amount my own family threw out by the thousands of families in each housing estate, and it was no surprise that we found so much “rubbish” everywhere.
I am convinced that if I did this regularly, I would never have to buy anything ever. The trouble was that while I often came across things I never expected to find, I couldn’t be sure that I would be able to get stuff I actually needed when I needed them - such as clothes in my size.
REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE
There’s an app for everything - and there are indeed apps for sharing and recycling things. The two that I tried were Olio and GoodHood. I was relieved that there was an alternative to dumpster diving for things that I was putting on myself.
It was a little hard to find anything in my size and in a style I wanted, and some things I had my eye on were quickly snapped up. In the end, I gave away some things that I had sitting around the house, like expired food and a mug that we didn’t use, but still couldn’t get clothes that would fit me.
Still, the whole experience of giving away things and finding things being listed for free online was gratifying. It was certainly less aggravating than trying to resell them, as the recipients of the free items were infinitely more appreciative.
The downside was that whatever time I saved not on shopping apps and not watching Netflix for the week (because it’s a paid subscription), I spent on what I call digital foraging on these sharing apps - and it was a little addictive.
And much of the time, I was simply gawking at all that stuff we have, had spent money on at some point - and which we didn't need or want anymore.
I eventually got some clothes from a clothes swapping event the weekend before my freegan week. The event, organised by Cloop, was for active wear, so I got a sports bra, tights and a top for yoga.
The clothes weren’t entirely free, as I had to pay S$30 to take part in the swap and I also had to give away some of my own clothes. But I thought S$30 and some clothes I didn’t wear anymore in exchange for a full set of new-used clothes was not a bad deal.
Cloop is one of several clothes swapping and recycling social enterprises in Singapore and you usually have to pay a small fee or buy a membership to clothes swap.
A friend who has a membership at another swap shop, The Fashion Pulpit, also gave me some points so that I could get some more clothes. It was hard to get a full wardrobe in just one week, but I did manage to spend half the week fully or partially dressed in “free” clothes.
Cloop founder Jasmine Tuan, a recovered shopaholic turned zero-waste advocate, gave some good tips on how to avoid shopping altogether. She takes walks in nature instead of going to malls, and recommends deleting all shopping apps, as well as unsubscribing from all marketing emails and even snail mail.
“The more things you own, the more things own you,” she said. “Buying should be the last option.”
And I now have an alternative to buying new clothes, which does contribute quite a bit to waste and pollution. According to the National Environment Agency, waste from textiles and leather came up to 189,000 tonnes last year, of which only about 7,000 tonnes, or 4 per cent, was recycled.
I also learned that I can recycle really old clothes or textiles (including some that I found on my dumpster dives) instead of throwing them away, as Cloop has a textile recycling bin at City Sprouts in collaboration with Life Line Clothing - a textiles recycling and upcycling business that is expanding into Singapore.
In my week of experimentation, advice and help were freely given whenever I asked. While I would not have gone hungry eating rescued food, my meals were not boring because of my neighbours.
One tip I got from Mr Tay was to ask my neighbours for their leftover food - a good way to save money and reduce food waste. So I went door to door to ask whoever was willing to join a WhatsApp group for my Housing Board block.
Because of this, we now have a chat group with more than 20 families sharing food and items to be recycled.
I had no occasion to ask them for food, but some rescued vegetables that I gave away came back to me as assam fish and cooked vegetables, and two bars of rescued margarine returned transmogrified into butter cake. One bag of leftover fishballs I got from a neighbour turned out to be handmade, and some of the best fishballs I’d ever had. Even the sambal I fried the okra and long beans with was a gift from a neighbour.
I also met some very generous people organising food rescues, and joined a community group in my neighbourhood that distributes food and secondhand items to seniors and lower-income households.
They all shared food and information on how to reduce waste with me. I’d never had so many people eager to feed me in my life - and my initial anxiety at not having enough food seemed rather odd by the end of the week.
I started this experiment thinking that being a freegan was about getting free stuff, but ended up being much more aware of how much waste we are generating, and being more plugged into my local community.
It is possible to save money and reduce waste - but only with the generosity of others and because there are now more community groups, social enterprises and platforms organising such programmes - and I had barely scratched the surface of the possibilities.
THERE’S NO ACCOUNTING FOR WASTE
During my week of freeganism, besides the S$30 I spent on clothes swapping, I also tapped away S$15 on public transport - which adds up to S$45.
I didn’t spend any money on food at all, although strictly speaking, the meals and meat paid for by my loved ones came up to about S$30.
In contrast, I had spent about S$200 eating out the week before - including a treat for my cousin at a Japanese restaurant for her birthday. I had also spent about S$300 on groceries, online and offline shopping and a red packet for my mother as she was going on a trip.
Mr Tay, who shared with me his personal expenses for the month of June, spent just S$158 the entire month - including S$50 in donations. But his typical monthly expenditure, which includes insurance premiums and medical expenses, is about S$300 to S$500.
Before he became a freegan, he spent about S$2,000 a month.
I was incredulous at first, but I realised that it was possible, although it involves a significant shift in lifestyle. Certainly, I spent a lot more time cooking and taking public transport than I normally did.
The main impediment to being freegan was not a lack of food, free or otherwise. On the contrary, the abundance of food around me meant that it was hard to resist. But a wholly freegan diet made it difficult to eat with others who were not freegans. For example, I postponed two meetings with friends that week.
It became clear after just one week how much I could save just by making sure I really needed something before I clicked on “buy”, reusing the things I already had or getting them secondhand, and not wasting the food we bought.
My main takeaway was that I already have a lot of everything - food, clothes, gadgets, shoes, appliances and all kinds of gear for my various hobbies.
There is no need to go dumpster diving if I plan my meals and shopping better - and it’s even easier if you can share any surpluses with your friends, neighbours and strangers, and reuse what they don’t need anymore.
Being completely freegan may be a little extreme. Our society revolves around capitalism, and at times, rejecting the use of money felt like rejecting mainstream society.
I would still like to buy something I really want, have a slice of cake at a cafe, eat out with a friend and watch a movie at a theatre, if the mood strikes me.
But the week also felt like a “detox”, giving me time and space to rethink my spending habits and what alternatives there are. I’m not swearing off cash, but there are some freegan habits that I will adopt, as I’ve found it really isn’t a stretch to live more sustainably.