Next Big Thing: Writer Becomes Freegan for a Month

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Raina Kelley, a writer for Newsweek magazine, spent a month as a freegan, someone who scavenges everything, from food to clothes, from what others have thrown away.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: Every year around this time, librarians raise their voices against censorship. It's Banned Books Week. Find out what's on the list. That's next.

But first, what would you say if I told you that you could find your dinner in the dumpster instead of the grocery store? Raina Kelley, a Newsweek writer, spent a month contemplating that and other strategies as she tried to reduce her environmental footprint. She also spent as little as possible, bartering and searching for free deals wherever she could. She was led by others who embrace this lifestyle. They call themselves freegans. And for those looking to consume carefully and spend less, freeganism might just be the next big thing. Raina wrote about her month as a freegan for this week's Newsweek magazine. She joins us now from NPR's New York bureau.

Raina, welcome.

Ms. RAINA KELLEY (Columnist, Newsweek): Thank you. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Hungry?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLEY: I wish I could say I was, but literally, I have not stopped eating since this experiment ended.

MARTIN: Since you went through this experiment.

Ms. KELLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: You ate big chunks of meat.

Ms. KELLEY: No, weirdly. Just lots and lots of candy.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. We're going to talk more about candy. First, the term freegan comes from what?

Ms. KELLEY: It's a combination of the word free and vegan. And it's supposed to represent the most radical environmental way of living, you know, the way with the least footprint.

MARTIN: And vegans, of course, don't consume any animal products or try not to use any animal products like, you know, butter or milk.

Ms. KELLEY: Exactly. Or honey, yeah, that really threw me for a loop.

MARTIN: Leather. What did you do about shoes?

Ms. KELLEY: Well, I wore the shoes I had, and that's another big tenet of freeganism, which is that don't just throw away what you have because it's no longer exactly what you want. You should wear it until it's no good to you and then throw it away. So my leather shoes I could continue to wear, but I couldn't buy new.

MARTIN: What inspired you to do this to begin with, or did you just really irritate one of your editors, and they go, you know, Raina, you need…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, you need to go out of here for a month and just live out of the dumpster. You're making me mad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLEY: That first thing might be true, but they didn't tell me that. The reason I pitched this story was because I had read so many articles to date that said, this is a list of 12 easy things to do to reduce your footprint. And not all of them sounded particularly easy, and some of them just sounded useless. So what I wanted to do was to try to do as many, you know, environment-saving things as I could. And I found this group the freegans who really believe in having a small a footprint as possible. So I said, why not? And I wanted to write the story from the inside out. I was going to tell people what I did and how that worked out.

MARTIN: How it worked out. Let's get to that.

(Soundbite for laughter)

MARTIN: In your entry for the first day of your life as a freegan, you write: Sometimes a $.75 packet of Skittles is all that prevents a co-worker from getting slapped.

(Soundbite for laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm glad that we're kind of in two different cities so…

Ms. KELLEY: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: In case, you know, you might be ready to snap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But were cravings a major problem?

Ms. KELLEY: Cravings are huge problem, especially this overwhelming never-leaving-me feeling that I had to have something sweet. Actually, I was craving not feeling deprived. I think that's why I always wanted candy. And it started on the first day and it never stopped. I felt stymied, tethered, so I couldn't just get up, go downstairs and get some Skittles. So that was the one thing that my mind chose to obsess over.

MARTIN: One change you did not make: dumpster diving for food. You saw people do it, but you didn't do it yourself.

Ms. KELLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: And your readers are greatly relieved.

(Soundbite for laughter)

MARTIN: But why not?

Ms. KELLEY: I didn't do it because our legal counsel, Newsweek's legal counsel wasn't comfortable with me doing something that's technically illegal in New York City and then writing about it in the magazine.

MARTIN: I didn't know it was illegal.

Ms. KELLEY: Yeah. Well, the problem is not taking the actual garbage. It's once you trespass on their land to take the garbage. And as many of our police department knows, once you throw it out, it's not yours anymore. But companies tend to throw their garbage in dumpsters on their own land, so the garbage is still garbage, but the dumpster belongs to them, as does the fence you climbed or…

MARTIN: I see.

Ms. KELLEY: …the path you walked there to get there.

MARTIN: Oh, so it's more complicated than it would seem.

Ms. KELLEY: A little bit, yeah.

MARTIN: A little bit more complicated, which raises the point that this is not as easy as reducing your environmental footprint. It's not as easy as some people say that it is.

Ms. KELLEY: No. And, you know, I really wanted to make the distinction between easy and can be done.

MARTIN: Did you achieve any big savings, because it's also - it's not just about the diet. It's also about spending. And…

Ms. KELLEY: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: …(unintelligible), but I'm guessing that, you know, you're a lady, and guessing you might enjoy a shop every now and again.

Ms. KELLEY: Exactly. And this particular lady likes to shop too much. I mean, I shopped - before I started the experiment, I would say that I went into at least three retail stores everyday. Didn't always buy something, but I bought stuff enough times that even I had a just a feeling of unease about my consuming. And so what shocked me was that over the 30 days, it wasn't hard not to buy. It felt so good just to be able to stop. And I thought it would impossible.

MARTIN: So take us through the last day. What was it like when you were counting down the last 24 hours? Were you thinking about fly suede boots you were going to get the next, or the cheeseburger?

Ms. KELLEY: It's hilarious. I was thinking I was in a foul mood. I really was. I mean, I just was anxious and nervous and guilty before I even, you know, was allowed to be a non-freegan. And I didn't want boots. What I really wanted was round-toed, black patent leather pumps - which I got, but a week later.

MARTIN: Oh whole - excuse me…

Ms. KELLEY: Yeah, I waited a whole week to get the shoes.

MARTIN: Why? Were you extending the experiment? Or were you just - what?

Ms. KELLEY: No, I had…

MARTIN: You were too tired because you haven't had enough to eat.

Ms. KELLEY: I had the sense that if I went - if I didn't give myself a little breathing room to, you know, acculturate to the new world, that I would go into the shoe store and just lose my mind and spend an entire paycheck on shoes. I was really concerned about my ability to control my spending.

MARTIN: Now, Raina, tell the truth. You're married.

Ms. KELLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: So come on, now. Did your husband slipped you something, and it was free? I mean, did - you know, come on, did he go out and get the steak and just give you a bite?

Ms. KELLEY: He was constantly trying to get me to cheat. And it was really funny, because the more he tried it, the easier it became to resist, because he was in no way subtle. For the first week, he was yelling and screaming and muttering that I was going to starve to death and this is no way for a person to live. And that's all you're going to have for dinner? And then the second week, he used - look what I'm eating, and like, waving TV dinners under my nose and like going to get cheeseburgers and stuff.

So each time I was - it was so over the top. I was prepared to resist him. And then he became broken down like me. Like he - I couldn't find anything to eat, so he stopped looking for things to eat. And we just lived on peanut butter and jelly for the last 10 days.

MARTIN: Oh, how romantic.

Ms. KELLEY: I know. It's very romantic.

MARTIN: I think, yeah.

Ms. KELLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, finally, Raina, look, if the lifestyle made you hungry and irritable, why is this making the world a better place?

Ms. KELLEY: Because wiser minds than me would do this one step at a time. They would start slow. They would start by reducing the amount of electricity they used in training themselves to turn the lights off when they leave the room.

Then they would ease into the shorter showers and less water. Then they would start looking at going local and organic. They wouldn't upend their life all at once like I did.

MARTIN: Raina Kelley is a writer for Newsweek Magazine. She spoke to us from our NPR bureau in New York, and will no doubt be visiting some cute boutiques on her way back to the office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Raina, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KELLEY: You're so welcome.

MARTIN: And do have some skittles.

Ms. KELLEY: I will.

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