Are there freegans in Russia?

Dmitry is a freegan – someone who prefers to dig through the garbage in search of food and other material benefits. Unlike the homeless and the beggars, freegans do so for ideological reasons, to eliminate the harm of overconsumption in an economic system geared towards profit over caring, for the humane management of the planet’s resources: to save money so that there is enough for everyone. Adherents of freeganism limit their participation in traditional economic life and strive to minimize the resources consumed. In a narrow sense, freeganism is a form of anti-globalism. 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, every year about a third of the food produced, approximately 1,3 billion tons, is wasted and wasted. In Europe and North America, the amount of food wasted annually per person is 95 kg and 115 kg, respectively, in Russia this figure is lower – 56 kg. 

The freegan movement originated in the United States in the 1990s as a reaction to the unreasonable consumption of society. This philosophy is relatively new for Russia. It is difficult to track the exact number of Russians who follow the freegan lifestyle, but there are hundreds of followers in thematic communities on social networks, mainly from large cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Many freegans, like Dimitri, share photos of their finds online, exchange tips for finding and preparing discarded but edible food, and even draw maps of the most “yielding” places.

“It all started in 2015. At that time, I hitchhiked to Sochi for the first time and fellow travelers told me about freeganism. I didn’t have a lot of money, I was living in a tent on the beach, and I decided to try freeganism,” he recalls. 

Method of protest or survival?

While some people are disgusted at the thought of having to rummage through the garbage, Dimitri’s friends don’t judge him. “My family and friends support me, sometimes I even share what I find with them. I know a lot of freegans. It’s understandable that a lot of people are interested in getting free food.”

Indeed, if for some, freeganism is a way to deal with excessive food waste, then for many in Russia, it is financial problems that push them to this lifestyle. Many older people, such as Sergei, a pensioner from St. Petersburg, also look into the dumpsters behind the shops. “Sometimes I find bread or vegetables. Last time I found a box of tangerines. Someone threw it away, but I couldn’t pick it up because it was too heavy and my house was far away,” he says.

Maria, a 29-year-old freelancer from Moscow who practiced freeganism three years ago, also admits to adopting the lifestyle because of her financial situation. “There was a period when I spent a lot on apartment renovation and I had no orders at work. I had too many unpaid bills, so I started saving on food. I watched a movie about freeganism and decided to look for people who practice it. I met a young woman who also had a difficult financial situation and we went to the grocery stores once a week, looking through the dumpsters and boxes of battered vegetables that the stores left on the street. We found many good products. I only took what was packaged or what I could boil or fry. I have never eaten anything raw,” she says. 

Later, Maria got better with money, at the same time she left freeganism.  

legal trap

While freegans and their fellow charity activists are promoting a smarter approach to expired food through food sharing, using discarded ingredients and making free meals for the needy, Russian grocery retailers appear to be “bound” by legal requirements.

There were times when store employees were forced to deliberately spoil expired but still edible foods with dirty water, coal or soda instead of giving food to people. This is because Russian law prohibits enterprises from transferring expired goods to anything other than recycling enterprises. Failure to comply with this requirement may result in fines ranging from RUB 50 to RUB 000 for each violation. For now, the only thing stores can legally do is discount products that are approaching their expiration date.

One small grocery store in Yakutsk even tried to introduce a free groceries shelf for customers with financial difficulties, but the experiment failed. As Olga, the owner of the store, explained, many customers began to take food from this shelf: “People just did not understand that these products were for the poor.” A similar situation developed in Krasnoyarsk, where those in need were embarrassed to come for free food, while more active customers looking for free food came in no time.

In Russia, deputies are often urged to adopt amendments to the law “On the Protection of Consumer Rights” to allow the distribution of expired products to the poor. Now stores are forced to write off the delay, but often recycling costs much more than the cost of the products themselves. However, according to many, this approach will create an illegal market for expired products in the country, not to mention the fact that many expired products are dangerous to health. 

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