Millennials go dumpster-diving in Singapore in the name of 'freeganism'

Reena Devi
Lifestyle Reporter
Photo: Freegan in Singapore

The subculture known as freeganism has gained fans among millennials in Singapore, inspiring them to ignore their parents’ warnings and get their hands dirty – literally. A freegan is defined as someone who rejects consumerism and seeks to reduce waste, especially by retrieving and reusing discarded items, often in dumpsters.

Currently, there is a Facebook group called Freegan in Singapore with about 1,100 members. Set up last year by Daniel Tay, 38, a financial planner, the age range of the group is from the twenties to the fifties with members from all walks of life. Notably, over 500 members in the group are from the 20- to 34-year-old age bracket.

A few of the young members explained to Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore what drew them to freeganism despite it being a far cry from avocado toast. 

Parents concerned

Gwen Tiew, 24, a sales and marketing manager, said her foray into freeganism, which began in April this year, shocked her parents.   

“My dear mother was aghast and thought that I was heavily in debt. She would also nag about how spirits will follow me home, because I took their belongings,” she said. “But now she’s more accepting because she said she’d rather I go Little India to dumpster dive for veggies than go Clarke Quay to get drunk.”

“Once, my dad told me that I’ll get cancer from eating expired food or food from dumpsters. That may be true… but we all die someday,” Tiew laughed.

Goh Wei Zheng, 23, Fine Arts undergraduate at Lasalle College of the Arts, said her family’s response was a bit more positive.

“There was… a dumpster-diving event that was happening on 8th October, and I joined the event, went for my first dumpster-diving adventure, ate leftover bread from the dumpster of a bakery, found eggs at the back of a supermarket, brought it home, ate it, fed my family with it, and we were all fine. I even told my mom about it, and she’s okay with me doing it,” she said.

Goh got into freeganism after a lecturer at school spoke about the movement, as it got her thinking about serving food with salvaged ingredients. For a school project, she created a pop-up café at the Lasalle campus on Winstedt Road on 3 November and served food from vegetables found in a dumpster – after washing them first. The food was finished within a day.

“Prior to the event I went on two vegetable hunts around Little India and collected the vegetables that were discarded by vegetable sellers because of blemishes,” she recounted.

Tiew’s first dumpster-diving adventure took place in Aljunied following an online conversation with Tay about a telescope he found while dumpster diving.  “I was intrigued by the stuff that people could get from dumpsters, and wanted to see it for myself. I’d heard about freeganism and dumpster diving years ago, when I was active on Tumblr and had online friends in US and Australia,” she said.

She never thought that it was possible in Singapore because it is “too hot and humid here, so I assumed things would rot pretty quickly and there’s just a really bad smell.” “Also, I thought Singaporeans were already very frugal and kiam siap (Hokkien for being prudent with money). I was wrong,” she said.

Inspired to change

Being a freegan has changed her, Tiew said. She has become more conscious about how she spends her money, what she spends it on and why she wants that particular item. Nowadays, before buying an item, she would ask herself, “Can I get this for free in relatively good condition from the dumpster?”

Often, the answer is yes.Spoiler alert: yes, for accessories, mostly with tags intact, shoes, T-shirts, watches, notebooks, stationery and certain consumables like instant noodles and snacks,” Tiew said.

Experiencing the freegan lifestyle has also inspired Goh to live differently. “I became more aware of my surroundings like how I will check the recycle bins for things, and I also became more thrifty of what I spend on. In our day-to-day lives we are constantly creating waste and it can be avoided, but many people still choose to use them, things like tissues, disposable products,” she said.

“I believe it will still take a long time for all Singaporeans to practice the act of recycling in their daily lives as I feel that many people take things for granted, like how there will always be someone clearing the trash that we dispose of, there is always that somebody. It makes me feel that we should be more responsible for the waste we produce and dispose of them properly,” Goh added.

Another millennial, Edmund Lee, 25, a civil servant, said he was introduced to the practice while studying in the US.

“I stayed in an apartment housing complex with many students. Typically, a large number of household items and unfinished dry food items were discarded at the end of a school year and at the end of the lease. These items were often found in the dumpster at the back of the apartment – which made it relatively easy to collect these items,” he said.

Lee considers himself on the “newbie end” of being a freegan even though he admits being raised to be thrifty by recycling and repairing old items. “The ‘food side’ of freeganism is something new to me, but I’ve always been agreeable to having free food from buffet leftovers. That seems quite natural to me and probably most Singaporeans,” he said.

“Most Singaporeans grow up to be rather thrifty. In fact, I think we’re rather penny pinching. Yet, I think we’re losing this in the younger generation with increasing affluence,” Lee added.

As for Tiew, she does not think she will ever stop spending money. “Because I like that money gives me the freedom to get the things I want immediately, instead of having to comb through piles of trash for them.”

“However, it feels damn shiok to see my expenses being halved,” she added.

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