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What do I even wear to go dumpster diving?

That was my first thought when I first heard about the freegan community in Singapore.

I had many questions running through my mind about this group of people in Singapore. Then I met a freegan who made me see the minimal consumption lifestyle in a whole different light.

Ng Xin Yi, 34, stumbled into the freegan community in 2019 after coming across a Facebook group called Zero Waste Singapore that actively promotes the reduction of waste in our community.

It was an eye-opener for her.

“Since I was young, I have always been interested in how to lead a more sustainable lifestyle,” she shares with The Pride.

In an interview with The Sustainable Seafood Project, Xin Yi shared how she had always been interested in reducing waste and avoiding single-use packaging.

For most of the time she would prefer to eat at the restaurants or stalls to prevent wastage of single use packaging, no takeaways.

When she does need to takeaway food, she will then bring her own containers to reduce packaging.

“One thing that we always do, is that we eat leftover food,” shares Xinyi. Her lunch meals can sometimes be eaten at dinner as well.

That was when she discovered that being a freegan solved her problems.

Still, it was an uphill battle for her to share her lifestyle journey with her friends. They used to think she was referring to veganism when she talked about it. One of her friends even asked if she had any dietary restrictions when she joined this community, she recalled with a laugh.

“I went around educating my friends and family about freeganism and its impact on our society.”

Another misconception is that some people think that it is a dirty lifestyle.

“One misconception is that freegan activities such as dumpster diving is ‘dirty’ or that items thrown away are in poor condition, but in reality, Singaporeans often throw away items that can still be consumed or used, or are sometimes even brand new” shares Xin Yi.

When asked what misconceptions he faced throughout his life as a freegan
Daniel Tay. Image source: Caroline Chia

When asked what misconceptions he faced throughout his life as a freegan, Daniel Tay, who is well known in the freegan community, shares how many often think that they are scavengers.

“It’s amazing the amount of stuff that gets thrown away in perfect working condition. You really have to experience firsthand the kind of things we get from what people throw away, before judging what we do as scavenging,” Daniel shares.

Daniel shares with The Pride how being a freegan means living by the principle of collecting things that other people don’t want, to reuse or repurpose for their own needs.

Living by this zero-waste principle means thinking about how they can get something without buying it — buying is the last resort instead of the first.

Daniel picking out vegetables that are about to be thrown away
Daniel picking out vegetables that are about to be thrown away. Image source: Caroline Chia

Daniel told Channel News Asia how being a freegan helped him reduce his expenditure from $2,000 a month to only about $300. He eats mainly rescued food, which means sometimes he would pay nothing for his meals for an entire month.

Xin Yi subscribes to the same mindset.

“We seek to reduce the amount of waste produced and extend the lifespan of products that we use,” Xin Yi shares.

“We are ultimately giving a second life to things other people throw away.”

Rather than creating demand for new products, she says, why not rescue existing items that would have been thrown away from the bin? It reduces waste from packaging too!

Let’s dumpster dive

Let’s dumpster dive
A mahjong table found beside the bins now used for Xin Yi’s own sessions with her friends. Image Source: Ng Xin Yi

So what does she wear to go dumpster diving?

Xin Yi laughs as I ask her the question.

“You can wear anything when you go for these freegan outings,” she says, adding that contrary to the phrase, they seldom actually climb into rubbish bins to pick things out.

During her freegan trips, shop owners would lay out unwanted items after closing for those who want them.

For instance, Xin Yi shares, cartons of bananas would be left out and everyone present would just take a box for themselves.

For vegetables, they would pick out as much as they would like, checking to see if it’s still safe to consume.

When I ask her how long she spends going for these freegan outings, she explains that freeganism does not have a specific time and date as it is a lifestyle.

“Being a freegan does not take a lot of time,” Xin Yi says.

“You could just be walking around your neighbourhood and see an item lying around that could be given a new life, and you save it.”

“We would flip bins inside out to see what we could salvage,” Xin Yi says.

The 34-year-old design consultant once found a Muji mirror from an exhibition that was left outside of her office. She took it home and looked up the price online. “I found out that the mirror was worth over $200.”

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Another time, she found a sofa cover identical to the one she had at home sticking out of a recycling bin. She shares her amusement at the fact that it was such a coincidence that she could find an identical piece of furniture being thrown away. “And now, I have two!”

There is one thing that she appreciates about the people in her neighbourhood, she says.

“People would leave stuff beside the bins if they feel that it is still in good condition,” she explains with a smile.

A typical haul from a freegan vegetables run
A typical haul from a freegan vegetables run. Image Source: Ng Xin Yi

Other than just household items, being a freegan means that she also rescues food that have been thrown away.

She is part of a rescue group in Singapore, called Divert For 2nd Life (D2L), made up of people passionate about the zero waste movement.

The community group (1,397 members and growing!) are volunteers passionate about diverting items that could still have a second life from the bin.

“It could be 11pm. and we could receive a text message that a store is throwing away their unused food, and we would all gather,” Xin Yi says.

It recently had an event at Bishan Community Club where it gave away free food (rescued or donated from sponsors) to residents and explained more about the zero waste lifestyle.

Xin Yi shares with The Pride how if the food she collects is too much for herself and her husband, she would distribute it to her parents, neighbours and anyone else who might want it.

After all, why pay so much for something that we need to consume to survive? “It’s just food,” she adds, “people might think that it’s ‘dirty’, but that does not stop me.”

It is a win-win situation for her as not only is she saving the environment, she gets free food, which ultimately helps her save money.

Some of the items that she found from grocery stores are past the sell by date but are still good to eat.
Some of the items that she found from grocery stores are past the sell by date but are still good to eat. Image source: Ng Xin Yi

Xin Yi, who recently moved into her own place, shares with The Pride that she sometimes gets her husband to join on her salvage trips.

“I would also tell my parents in Bishan to go to their community food sharing area to collect the vegetables donated there and I would assure them that its quality is still the same,” Xin Yi shares.

From being just a hobby, Xin Yi has become an advocate for freeganism and a zero-waste lifestyle. She tries to share her personal philosophy with others when she can, to talk about the benefits of saving money and the environment, once they get over their initial squeamishness.

“I always share with my friends and family about what I am doing in hopes that they can do the same and understand the importance of reducing our waste,” shares Xin Yi.

Steps towards a sustainable lifestyle

The National Environment Agency reported that last year, about 6.94 million tonnes of solid waste were generated, of which only 3.83 million tonnes were recycled.

Of this solid waste, 817 million kilograms was of food, with only 154 million kg, or 19%, was recycled. In 2019, we threw away 744 million kg of food, the equivalent of about two bowls of rice per person per day.

Most of our waste will end up at Semakau Landfill, which is predicted to overflow by 2035.

Singapore has been actively promoting its zero waste plans and visions to encourage Singaporeans to start recycling, reducing, and reusing.

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We can all start small. Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to actively go out to source for food or household items that have been thrown away, there are many ways to start a sustainable lifestyle.

Use reusable bags for your groceries. Bring your own container when you dabao your food. Even the cups you drink from after buying a cup of bubble tea can be recycled — just remember to give it a quick rinse first to get rid of any food remnants.

Creating a zero waste nation is easier than you’d think. And you don’t even need to worry about what to wear!

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