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The Nuts and Bolts of Living on Less

Modern Western society is a high-consumption, disposable society. Most people throw away more than what people in other parts of the world, in non-consumer cultures, actually live on. In setting himself the task of living on what he decided was his 'fair share', Charles Gray discovered the delights of delving into the dumpsters!

By Charles Gray  

"You can't live on that in Portland, Oregon".

"I spend more than that just to drive to work and I spend twice that amount to rent a room".

Or later when we moved to Oakland a friend said, "Well, I don't know about Portland, but you could never do it in the San Francisco Bay Area".

Well, it's fun to brag a little now and then to compensate for our many failures, and I must admit to some pride at proving my friends predictions to be wrong. But we did show in an eleven year test that it can be done in either Portland or the San Francisco Bay Area and that, with some good fortune, one can even save money under a World Equity Budget (WEB). One can live on one's share and still have something for emergencies.

It's not impossible. At times it's very difficult and contrariwise there are times when it's a breeze. Because at first glance it seems impossible, I think it worthwhile to spend some pages on the nuts and bolts of living on less. We are not as expert as some. Millions of people in this country live simply. Some ways of doing this they share, but there are many ways of doing so that are not so well known. We have learned a lot from others and we've developed a few ways of our own. We put them together into out particular bag of tricks. I'm quite sure that if one put the energy into a search one could find many more. Each person can find ways that best suit her/her own situation and personality. So we open up our bag of tricks as just one of many possible bags.

This assortment of tricks is for a particularly insane environment the United States, but much of it would work in any high consumption, throw away society. We have more left over than most people have to begin with. America is one gigantic waste basket, one great garbage can. Part of that garbage is in our own heads in the form of classist attitudes. One of those classist attitudes is that it is beneath our dignity to pull something out of a garbage can, no matter how useful it might be. Since childhood many of us have been taught to look down upon the scavenger as, at best, an object for pity and, at worst, as someone to be shunned or even punished or driven away. Such persons are viewed as no count and shiftless, trying to live on the work of others. Why don't they shape up and get a job?

I remember the shame I felt the first time I climbed into a supermarket dumpster. I first looked around to make sure no one was looking, either a store manager or especially someone I might know. How embarrassed I would be what an undignified act! My feelings of self-worth were definitely threatened. My classism was deeply within me. Intellectually I knew that what I was doing was correct, but the deep feelings of embarrassment were still there. I still have them today to a degree. Partly understanding the origin of these feelings, however, makes it easier to act in spite of them. Once one pretty much gets this classist garbage out of one's head, a new world opens up, a world full of opportunities to cut living costs and to recycle useful materials.

I have had some very good teachers in the arts of scavenging. Peter Bergel, an Oregon friend, could be in and out of a dumpster before I managed to even climb up the side. Peter rarely bought nuts and bolts for his many construction projects. He got plenty from the shoulders of roads that he hitch-hiked on. Peter was also one of the organisers of the Great Annual Counterculture Raid on the dumpsters of the University of Oregon fraternities, sororities and dormitories at the end of the school year.

(One) Oregon friend,
could be in and out of

a dumpster before I managed to even
climb up the side.

Like students everywhere, I suppose, those at the U. of O. put off studying as long as possible and then during the last week or so they get frantic to get their term papers and exams done and catch the plane home. They don't face the fact that during the year, as products of the American Dream Machine, they had accumulated a lot of goodies that they had stuffed into every cranny of their rooms. Cleaning out their rooms is their lowest priority in this crisis period. They can't cram it all into their car, and they certainly can't take it all on the plane. In the last minute rush most of it goes into the dumpster in the alley and there eagerly waiting are the Great Annual Counterculture Raiders with bicycle trailers, cars and borrowed trucks.

The best goodies are piled into these assorted means of transport and taken to the biggest house and yard available to said raiders. Then amid much celebration and self-congratulation and toasts to the 'simple' life, the raiders go through the vast pile item by item to see who needs or wants what. What isn't wanted by anyone is put in free boxes around town or taken to the Goodwill, Salvation Army, local mission or other such outlet. The goodies thus recycled include some very pricey items of clothing and footwear, some never even worn, and books, radios, typewriters, posters, tapes, food, booze, etc.

George Miller of Seattle and later Oakland was another great teacher. He knew where to get anything needed or wanted, food, hardware, appliances, lumber, stationery, books, etc. He made a great game of scavenging and prided himself on his ability to get whatever was wanted and usually more quickly than shopping for it. It was a sport to him a great game. When he wasn't out for a particular item, but just on a general food run, his haul would often be full of luxury foods ice cream, hams, exotic fruits and vegetables that many people couldn't afford to buy. The problem in living with George was having enough refrigerator or other storage space to accommodate his great hauls until we could redistribute the surplus to other poor people it was always more than one household could use. He developed a list of people who needed it and couldn't necessarily scavenge themselves.

The danger of scavenging in the U.S. is that you can become pretty greedy and load your digs with as much stuff as your middle class counterparts go out and pay for. There is so much thrown away in this society that, still being to a degree products of that society's advertising industry, we remain gluttons, but just get it for free.

So scavenging is one of the major tricks in the bag of the simple liver. The abundance is such that the problem is still having too much rather than not enough. After eleven years on the WEB (World Equity Budget) we still, like our middle class friends, find ourselves trying to reduce the amount of books and clothing and other goods that we have. We rarely buy, but we still accumulate beyond what by rights we should have and by practice what we can easily store and find when we have use for it. Living on the WEB one can still be a greedy materialist if one wants to be. It's a drag, of course, to be too pure, so we still enjoy and celebrate a bit of gluttony now and then such as when we score some luxury fruit from the dumpster, or our favourite junk food or a six pack of beer thrown away because one can was dented.

One cannot believe the amount of waste of perfectly usable food until one finally overcomes feelings of indignity and climbs into a dumpster. Whole cases of food because the supermarket ordered too much or priced it too high or because one or two packages in the case were damaged, or the label was put on upside down, or the food was not sold before the pull date. The Community for Creative Nonviolence once put on a banquet for members of Congress. The banquet had a very fancy menu and it was entirely from food foraged in Washington D.C. I once made a garbaging foray with a friend in Portland. We got such a marvellous assortments of fruits and vegetables that we made wonderful fruit and vegetable salads and invited a number of members of the faculty of Lewis and Clark College to a very fancy lunch. We figured it was worth it to educate these folks about the extent of waste at the distribution end of our food chain. The CCNV folks, as usual, were bolder. They had gotten some Congresspersons to actually climb into a dumpster.

I had the fun of introducing Dorothy to foraging. I was hoping to have good luck the first attempt, and we did. When Dorothy climbed up over the top, her eyes opened wide in amazement at the largess. She was an immediate enthusiast. Our bike trailer was loaded to the breaking point. Dorothy couldn't stop. It was all free! This was so exciting compared to the dullness of walking down the store aisles pushing a cart. It was like a treasure hunt. One time in Portland the tow bar on my bike trailer did actually buckle under the weight of the food I'd gotten. I had to learn to restrain myself.

With these anecdotes I don't want to leave the reader with the impression that it is always easy and abundant. One often has a dry or near dry run, or a less than pleasant scene with store personnel or the local police. Sometimes, and more recently now, the dumpsters are locked. I have heard that some stores have dyed or somehow made unfit, the food they throw out. Sometimes one can get messy while searching through the many useless things. I've slipped on spoiled fruit and stepped into broken jars of mayonnaise or peanut butter. Foraging isn't much fun when it's pouring rain.

Before leaving the subject of foraging, I'll offer a few tips we've picked up from our own experience. Wear easily washable clothes. Wear shoes rather than sandals to protect your feet from possible broken glass. Sometimes your feet will just about disappear in a heap of vegetables. Take some plastic bags. Usually you won't need boxes because dumpsters are often loaded with them.

The danger of scavenging in the U.S. is that you can become pretty greedy and load your digs with as much stuff as your middle class counterparts go out and pay for.

Be friendly and polite to store personnel. Try not to make their jobs harder by making a mess around the dumpster. It might help to role play how you will deal with possible scenes. If you develop friendly relations with store clerks and especially with people in the produce departments, they will often be helpful by telling you what time of day they bring things out of the store or by putting boxes of usable food aside so folks don't have to climb into the dumpster to get it. If you take part of what you forage to other poor people or to a food kitchen, let them know this. If the lid of the dumpster is closed, be sure to close it again after you search it. Store personnel often carry the negative stereotypes of scavengers that you may have once carried yourself, and some of their experience may have reinforced these stereotypes. Also, sometimes they are afraid. Do what your can to change these negative images.

If store personnel are uncommunicative, you can still learn the best times to forage at that location by returning at different times of day and on different days of the week. Doing this you can learn the patterns and you can also learn when the trash companies empty the dumpsters. Often produce departments remove produce from the store bins first thing in the morning so if you can go just after this time you will get the food in its best condition before the day's sun or rain has damaged it. Sometimes markets have certain days when they remove dairy products from the shelves. You'll sometimes get a bonanza of kefir, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese and other goodies on such days. Sometimes bakery goods are treated this way, too.

Some judgment needs to be used on what it is safe to take. Usually, as long as you wash it, produce is as safe as if you had taken it from the bins inside the store. Produce that has blemishes or some damage so a customer won't buy it is often perfectly edible. Damage can be removed with a little effort. Whatever you can use conserves food and lightens your steps on the earth. Of course, because of pesticides and other toxic chemicals, the food in the dumpster is no safer than the food in the store so if you can scavenge from organic markets you are better off. I am generally leery of taking food from broken containers and I don't garbage meats. For non-vegetarians, meats that are preserved or sealed and have just been put in the dumpster are probably okay. Remember to allow time to sort out what you have collected. Some of it will need to be used soon, some of it will need damage removed, etc..

Don't settle too soon on a single market. Check around. Some are definitely better than others. Some are better on particular days. If your are not too far from a food warehouse district, check it out. They can be excellent sources. They often throw out a dozen cases or more of something they have over-ordered or that is a bit too ripe for the market, but is perfect for you.

So scavenging is one ofeee the major tricks in the bag of the simple liver...

Try also to develop friendly relations with others who search the dumpsters. Scavengers can often be very helpful to each other if they have a sharing attitude. Someone else in the dumpster may be looking only for particular things. If you run across such items first, you can point them out. They will often return the favour. We once searched a dumpster with a ten year old boy. He was rejecting a lot of good things, but pointing them out to us. When we asked what he was looking for, he got us to promise we wouldn't laugh and then he told us he was only looking for chewing tobacco.

I have been focusing on food because that is a continuing need, but many other kinds of things can be scavenged. To save shipping costs booksellers sometimes tear off and return to the distributor the covers of paperback books. The book itself they then throw into the trash. Almost every kind of speciality store will trash useful things carpet shops, stationary stores, appliance stores, paint stores, etc.. When businesses or home-owners remodel, lots of useful building materials are tossed into dumpsters. Enormous amounts of useful or easily repairable materials are thrown into the biggest trash can in town the city dump. Some dumps allow scavenging or they put aside recyclable materials.

So much for scavenging. It is a major key to cutting the cost of living. It also recycles usable things. You just have to adopt positive attitudes and jump in. Go to the back of the store before you go in the front. Try it. You'll like it. It will surprise you. "But you're not contributing to the economy". Yes you are. You are conserving and reusing and reducing the problems of solid waste.

There are other ways than scavenging to reduce the cost of food. Fruits and nuts are often available free. Many fruit trees go unpicked because they are so abundant that householders only pick a little for eating fresh. They are sometimes too busy holding down two jobs to pay for a new car or VCR or personal computer to have time to harvest and preserve the fruit that will soon rot on the tree outside their door. Often they are quite willing to have someone else harvest the plums, apples or pears. They are generous and it saves the mess on the lawn. Fruit can be found on vacant or public property also. For several years we got all the apples, pears and grapes we could use from one abandoned piece of old orchard that had been bought by the city, but not yet converted to a park addition. Blackberries and other wild fruits are abundant in season. One caution on blackberries they usually grow along roadsides, but find them in areas away from major roads because otherwise they will be covered with lead and other exhaust pollutants and may have been sprayed by highway crews to retard their growth. Gleaning is another ancient way in which the poor have gotten food. Some communities have gleaning programmes organised by senior citizens.

Most of the above has been about ways in which you, as an individual, can cut food costs. Other ways involve community organisation of co-ops, buying clubs, farmer's markets, gleaning groups, food kitchens, etc.. We have not ourselves initiated such organising, but we have been participants and have benefited from the wonderful efforts of persons who have focused on developing these alternatives to the agribusiness supermarket chains.

Complete copies of the reduced version (used above) are available from Ben Searle, 5 Fairlawn Rd., Montpelier, Bristol B56 5JR plus 50p postage. The original was written in 1989.

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