Once upon a time, tidying up was a dreaded affair. This period leading up to Chinese New Year however, Singaporeans are finding joy in spring cleaning and decluttering their homes.
It’s amazing how Marie Kondo turned chores into an international obsession.
This couldn’t have come at an even better time since many families are banking on the KonMarie method to make their pre-Chinese-New-Year spring cleaning a little more joyful.
As with the increasing amount of things we throw out, our green (rubbish) bins and blue (recycling) bins at our neighbourhood void decks have also been filling up more quickly than usual. Some of you would have even noticed that these ‘trash spots’ are overflowing with items recently.
For some people however, these ‘trash spots’ are treasure troves: Dumpster divers.
Digging Through Trash?!
As the term suggest, dumpster diving is digging through dumpsters to salvage useful items. In other words, finding treasure in someone else’s trash.
Some do it to save money, some do it to save the environment, some do it for charitable reasons, and some, just for the fun of it.
Since dumpster diving in Singapore started getting more attention two years ago, more Singaporeans are opening up to it. But even with the increasing interest, Singaporeans still largely perceive dumpster diving to be a bizarre activity.
“Why do people even want to dig through trash?”
“Only poor people need to dumpster dive.”
“Can find anything good from dumpsters meh? If it’s still good why will people throw it away?”
However, as shared by the co-founder of Freegan in Singapore, Colin, “people have the wrong idea that everything in the trash is worthless.”
The Man Behind ‘Freegan In Singapore’
Ever since he started dumpster diving in 2016, Colin has found valuable items that we would never have thought we would find in dumpsters. Electronics like television sets, mobile phones, and ovens are common finds, so are kitchenware and perfect condition furniture.
He has also found hundreds of branded bags before from Prada, Louis Vuitton, Coach, and Gucci. Besides small defects, most of these bags are still in good, working condition when he found them in the dumpsters. For example, one of the bags he found had a broken zipper pull tab which he simply replaced with a twist tie – “the kind from the bread from bakeries.”
In a post he wrote on Freegan in Singapore recently, a Facebook page he co-founded, Colin added that “when people shift, renovate, spring clean or have a recently deceased loved one, they will throw away amazing items in perfect condition.”
As a leader of the freegan community here, which has close to 7,500 members in its Facebook group, Colin has trained and is still training disciples to continue the work of dumpster diving for charitable reasons and advocating the freegan lifestyle.
Colin also initiated the “Filiporean Project”, where he gives away dumpster dived items to Filipina domestic workers and assists them in sending boxes of rescued items back home, where most of the poor there do not even have the luxury of affording the items we relegate to the trash heap.
These items are collected from dumpster diving, and from donations by fellow freegan members and the public. And he has so much that he sets aside an entire bedroom just for these items.
“Sundays are the highlight of my weeks because that’s when I have the maids come over for giveaways. I’ll do a lucky draw for expensive items (like branded bags). Then, after prayer, they can grab whatever they want from the room.”
Although a big part of Colin’s lifestyle now revolves around dumpster diving for altruism, he initially started doing so as a way to reduce living expenses. Having decided to take a break from working, Colin started researching for ways to stretch his savings.
That is when Colin picked up knowledge of dumpster diving online and through shows like Extreme Cheapskates. His inspiration for his Filiporean Project also stemmed from there. Even after his interest was piqued, he had spent two to three months researching more before going out for his first hunt.
“I didn’t even dare to do it initially! I watch a lot of videos until I’m very sure and got the PHD already then I went to try.”
Colin later found that his food, merchandise, and monthly expenses dropped to less than $100 after he started dumpster diving.
The beginning of the Filiporean Project came on his fourth day, when he took home a bag of good quality female clothes, which was later passed on to a Filipina.
He started giving away more dumpster dived items to this Filipina to be sent back to the poor in Philippines. Out of curiosity, Colin picked up the logistical processes of it. Eventually, news of him giving away merchandises to Filipina maids spread and today, he has four main leaders in his Filiporean project and more than 150 maids in his list.
Although he has gotten quite a bit of public hate for his project, Colin maintains that “all these negativity will not stop me from continuing to be kind to the poor and needy. Whenever I see a maid scream in joy when I give her something I found in the trash, that is my reward already.”
Like what Colin does for merchandises, Daniel does for food.
Every Thursday morning, Daniel runs the Pasir Panjang Food Rescue mission, where the group of food rescuers collect vegetables and fruits that shopkeepers no longer want. The rescued foods are first distributed among themselves before the bulk of it gets sent to soup kitchens and charitable organisations.
These days, Daniel does not dumpster dive for food as much anymore, because the foods he has got from the rescue missions are more than enough. Over the past two years, Daniel has also collected various food products that he can “probably eat for years.”
It began with an interest in learning how to save more money and three projects: to ask neighbours for leftover food, and looking through the dumpsters and the back of supermarkets to see what people throw out.
Over time, Daniel rescued so much food that he had to give most of it to his neighbours, friends, and the freegan community. Communities form easily through food sharing, and for Daniel, this arrangement helped build a good community spirit between him and his neighbours.
Fruits like apples and oranges are foods that Daniel finds a lot of in bins all around, which were probably prayer offerings. Another category of food that he saves a lot of from dumpsters and food rescue missions are expired processed or canned food.
Rescued vegetables that would have otherwise gone to the incinerator because of minor cosmetic defects or just couldn’t be sold
“A freegan is someone who rejects consumerism and seeks to reduce waste, especially by retrieving and reusing discarded items.”
As defined in the Facebook group and reiterated by both Colin and Daniel, freegans do see the need to spend money on things that they can get for free.
In the middle of my interview with Daniel at McDonald’s, he got up suddenly, “wait ah, wait ah,” only to return with a used straw, which he proceeded to wipe with paper napkins before using it to stir his cup of tea. He explained how this is one of the many things that encompasses the freegan philosophy.
“You’re signalling to the company that they need to put more straws, but that’s not good for the environment. But if you take one that somebody has already used, you’re not creating any more demand.”
While Daniel’s rationale made sense, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable thinking about the possibility of contamination. Who knows what people do with straws, or their utensils, or food after they are done with it. I shuddered at that thought, but also felt guilty for my nonchalance in using plastics.
On the flipside, Daniel had only ever gotten food poisoning from food that was bought.
“Because I know it’s rescued food, I’m a lot more stringent and careful.”
As a general practice, freegans like Daniel practice the Look-Smell-Taste test method to determine whether a certain food product is safe to eat. Obviously, meat with maggots crawling around is out of the question, and for Daniel, so are dented, rusty, or bloated cans of food.
Expired food however, are one of the common foods that freegans rescue for consumption. As Colin best puts it, “Most [locals] think that food spoils one second after midnight of the best before date. But we freegans believe that food is not equipped with a self destructive device that can activate itself at the stroke of midnight of the expiry date.
Daniel had even had 12-years-expired chicken essence. Even though the initial thought of consuming something that has expired for 12 years did make his stomach churn, Daniel explains that it is most a psychological reaction that can be overcome by testing it out.
As leaders in the dumpster diving and freegan community, Colin and Daniel are what Colin refers to as ‘Rambo dumpster divers’ who map out their attack route, and dig and grab every good thing they see.
Dumpster Diving As A Hobby
Then, there is the second type of dumpster divers which make up the bulk of the community – the ‘casual encounter’ type. And we met one such casual encounter dumpster diver last month: Bianca.
A fellow millennial in her first full-time job as a teacher, Bianca usually dumpster dives with her boyfriend. Although their dumpster diving ‘trips’ are never planned, Bianca has found herself rescuing bags of clothes and assortments of housewares for her family, boyfriend, friends, and herself.
“It’s usually when we are walking to my block from the bus stop for example, and we’ll just check the bins along the way.”
Bianca also often does barter trades and gives away rescued items on the various dumpster diving and freegan groups online.
Unlike Colin and Daniel who started for practical reasons, Bianca’s interest in dumpster diving germinated from a concern for the environment.
“The whole thing started when I watched some PETA videos in Secondary school. I started realising that whatever we consume, be it shampoo, soap, or anything we use on a daily basis, have an impact on the environment.”
Knowing that her spending money on certain companies indirectly supports them in their cruel practices, Bianca began to switch to companies which are ethically or environmentally conscious in their business practices.
It was when she went on a ‘clothes fast’ in 2016 to curb her shopping addiction when she realised that she didn’t need a lot of material goods in her life.
“I didn’t buy any clothes for one year. Dumpster diving came along shortly after the clothes fast. I realised that if I can do with fewer clothes, I can do with fewer things. At the same time, I thought, maybe I don’t need to buy stuff, I can just look out for free stuff.”
“I’ve always been very auntie. I don’t mind secondhand clothes. I’ve very comfortable with clothes from the thrift store, ever since young. So I think the open-mindedness and willingness to get my hands dirty just sparked off a ‘love’ for [dumpster diving].”
Check out Freegan in Singapore’s Facebook page to learn more about dumpster diving and freeganism here!
Head to SG Food Rescue if you’re keen to learn or join in their food rescue missions here!
For those who want to donate used items to the Philippines, you can reach Colin at firstname.lastname@example.org.