Environmental queries are slowly beginning to make their way into the mailboxes of advice columnists nationwide and, since they're coming from people seeking help with difficult problems, the types of people portrayed in these questions tend to be a little extreme. Take Salon's Cary Tennis column from last month about an environmentalist husband who prohibited his wife from using the dryer or water heater. Through a laborious analogy, Tennis chastizes the environmentalist for being holier-than-thou (and rightly so, in this case, because the wife had already done plenty to be green and at this point, he was prioritizing the water heater over his marriage).
Slate's Dear Prudence faced an environmental query this week, too:
Since graduating from college several years ago, my younger sister has adopted what you might call an alternative lifestyle. She lives in our parents' basement, works part time at a fast- food restaurant, and spends the majority of her time protesting for various causes. I have been sympathetic until recently, when she adopted the freegan lifestyle. Freegan means that she goes out in the middle of the night to dig through dumpsters behind grocery stores and food production plants. Her stance is that perfectly good food is being thrown out for cosmetic or other bogus reasons. This weekend, I visited my family, only to find the freezer full of expired health drinks and bagels and the cupboards stuffed with other expired or damaged items—including health-food bars that were recalled because of potential salmonella poisoning. I was so grossed out, I wouldn't eat anything without first inquiring about its origins. My sister pays no rent and has no expenses, and my parents would happily buy her any food from the store. I have tried to encourage my parents to put their foot down about her bringing garbage into the house to no avail. Their opinion is that I am the one being unreasonable. Please help!
Since I recently spent the wee hours driving the porcelain bus because of some toxic stuffed peppers (which I paid for!), I am sympathetic to the roiling in your stomach at the thought of eating food rescued from the dumpster. As long as your family's cuisine of choice is not Italian or Chinese but "Recalled by the FDA," when you're visiting and mealtime comes around you should make a pitch for supporting the beleaguered restaurant industry. I think your distress is about more than your digestive system, though. It's driving you crazy that your parents, instead of encouraging your sister toward self-sufficiency, are indulging her to the point that they are potentially endangering their own health. But take note that the harder you push on this, the more they rush to her defense. So don't give yourself a stomach ache over your family dynamics. Instead, just be glad you're not living in the basement, too, and consider brown-bagging it the next time you visit.
Prudie addresses the issues of the older sister, but the younger could use some advice, as well. Mainly about how she's not doing freeganism very well, or even safely. According to Freegan.info, a basic guide for freegans worldwide, "Nutrition and food safety experts who have observed the freegan practice of recovering food discarded by stores have found that so much safe, high-quality food is regularly discarded that freegans, using common-sense precautions, can safely harvest these foods and take them home to eat without risking their health." Here are some basic food safety guidelines for freegans, based on the advice of a host of freegan blogs:
- Be sanitary. Aim for pre-packaged or individually wrapped foods that have not been in bags with things like spilled liquids or obviously spoiled food.
- Be safe. If there's a large quantity of perfectly-fine food thrown away before the sell-by date, this is probably due to a recall. So, leave that peanut butter in the trash.
- The safest foods to "rescue" are always vegetables, according to the Squidoo page of Secret Freegan (check out this blog's photos of bountiful scavenged food), who recommends washing them with one teaspoon of baking soda, or one tablespoon white vinegar, or a commercial vegetable washing liquid found in health food stores.
- Don't even attempt to take food that needs refrigeration in warm months - you run the risk of getting very sick. It would be unwise to take meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or any food that has touched any of the aforementioned foods, at any time of year.
- "Sell By" and "Best if Used By" dates are safer than "Use By." The previous two are just to tell the store how long to display the product, says the USDA.
- Be cautious about dented and broken containers. A dented can is ok, but if it's swelling, leave it be. Glass jars may have been broken when they were thrown into the bin, and they will contaminate everything, so don't take any food from a bin with broken glass. This is also why you should wear gloves, says the author of A Freegan Dumpster Diving Blog, who details all of his finds.
- A freegan mantra for you to repeat: "When in doubt, throw it out."
- Freeganism doesn't have to involve food, and it doesn't even have to involve dumpster-diving. Check out four easy ways to be a freegan that don't involve garbage at all.