I’m all about living in a self-sufficient manner and independent of destructive systems. I feel that truly self sufficient and independent living is done off the land away from the invasiveness of our current wasteful and destructive standard. This would most truly be done by living off the grid, a fair distance from populated regions where there is land and resources to sustain oneself. A hand built log cabin in the woods on a pristine river with a big garden would do the trick for example. This could be done with family or a small community to keep loneliness from overtaking the mind.
As much as I admire and value anyone living in that manner and often dream of it, it’s not what matches my current mission in life and that is to affect positive environmental and social change in society. Thus, I must be amongst society. What follows is a guide of how to live in society and to live off waste. The idea of living off waste is that the stuff being wasted has already been produced and all of the environmental and social damage has taken place already. The materials have already been mined from the ground, the forests chopped down, the food grown, the animals killed, the pollution spewed, and so on. Now the stuff is likely heading to the landfill to be of no good use to anyone or anything and only to be a burden on humankind and the environment.
So why not put it to good use? Living off waste is a way to give no support to these wasteful systems and even can be a form of activism and protest to bring attention to the wastefulness. At the same time living off waste decreases ones environmental impact by having no need for resources to be consumed in their name and also by diverting stuff from the landfill and putting it to good use instead.
There is the argument by some people that living off waste is completely dependent on the very system that is being fought against. This is true to a certain extent. But for me that takes no merit away from putting wasted stuff to good use. It is a hugely positive way to affect positive change on earth and decrease ones personal environmental impact at the same time. It takes courage, resourcefulness, and in the US American culture the ability to swallow one’s own ego. I admire anyone who exudes those qualities. Living off waste does indeed depend on the wasteful system but anyone I know who lives off waste would gladly see that system dissolve and give way to a just system that uses resources wisely. And as most people that use waste are very resourceful they would embrace and adapt to the new non-wasteful systems in place. It makes the most sense to me to do what we can in the current situation we are in, and that is exactly what living off waste does.
This guide is going to give you a HUGE jump-start to live off waste if you should choose to do so. The beauty of getting wasted things for free is that means you can spend less time earning money and more time pursuing your true passions whether it be art, sports, education, volunteering, or whatever it may be! Now this guide isn’t just going to hand it all to you on a golden platter. It’s going to take dedication, and hard work to get yourself out of the consumer lifestyle that dominates today and into a more earth friendly and healthy lifestyle.
First, we’ve got food. This is the form of waste that I am most knowledgeable about and have seen the most people adapt into their lives. Think about saving a couple hundred dollars a month on food and what you could do with that money (or time) instead.
Dumpster diving. We throw away nearly half of all the food we produce in the United States, about $165 Billion worth. It’s a serious amount of food and vast quantities of it are still perfectly delicious and nutritious. Grocery store dumpsters are filled to the brim with free food and it’s just waiting for you. Get started with my guide to dumpster diving and get inspired and blown away by The Food Waste Fiasco.
Start a food rescue program to distribute food to people in need and then keep a small share for yourself as well. This involves creating a partnership with grocery stores or restaurants and having them donate the food rather than throw it away. Boulder Food Rescue has a guide on how to do it!
Go to places at the end of the day and ask if they have food they are going to toss out. Great places for this include farmers markets, bakeries, and restaurants. Go to farmers markets towards the end and lend them a hand with packing up in exchange for the food. Bakeries waste an incredible amount of fresh bread, especially any that sell only bread baked that day.
Gleaning. In many neighborhoods there are fruit trees that are abundant with fruit that will just ripen and fall to the ground. Find these trees, knock on the door of the property owner and ask if you can take some food. Offer to prepare a basket for them as well and distribute some to others if there is enough! Check out Falling Fruit for a map of free food! You can also go to farms after harvest and collect the food that isn’t harvested due to inefficiency’s in harvesting or aesthetic imperfections.
Start a garden using wasted materials. It’s amazing how many plants and how much soil is thrown away by nurseries. You can go there and rescue this soil and plants and start a food garden with it. Kale, basil, and tomato plants are just a few edibles you might find that you can revive. And once you’ve gotten them to seed you can reuse those seeds year after year! You can also take the seeds from fruits that are being thrown away (such as an apple seed or tomato) and plant it to turn it into an abundance of fruit. Compost your yard waste and food scraps to make healthy soil and grow more food! Here’s my guide on how to compost.
Living off waste is easier when you reduce your needs. The less you actually need, then the less you need to find. Hence, one of my greatest suggestions to you would be to practice a simple and natural personal hygiene. Here is my guide to that.
But for those that care not to practice a natural hygiene it is quite possible to get personal hygiene items in the dumpsters of pharmacies like CVS. I’ve found huge quantities of deodorant, shampoo, mouthwash, toothpaste, etc. All of them are unused and in packages. It’s just absurd how much of this stuff is thrown away. If I was into most of those things I’d use them, but I avoid putting these chemicals on my body. I have many times used toothbrushes and dental floss though.
Toilet paper. It may seem that you must buy TP but that is far from the truth. I have a few solutions for you. In the dumpsters of pharmacies I’ve often found unopened twelve and twenty-four packs of toilet paper. This can be due to a torn or squished package or because someone stole a roll so the package was incomplete. Another thing you can do is go to restaurants and pick up the dozens of unused napkins that people leave on their table. People often take a stack of napkins just to throw half away. And there’s always grabbing wasted newspapers and using that is TP as well.
(See 9 ways to wipe your butt for free)
I have not done this myself, but it is entirely possible to build a bike out of thrown out bike parts completely for free. Or often entire bikes are thrown out in residential alleys and big box stores like Wal-mart. At the least it is quite possible to get spare bike parts from bike shops that often throw out inner tubes, tires, or other parts. This can help you at least do bike maintenance for free once you’ve got yourself a bike. Having panniers and a bike rack or a trailer will help you to run all of your errands without having to use gasoline or spend any money. You can build panniers out of waste five gallon buckets or plastic crates. Here’s a guide on how to make a trailer and how to make panniers. See my guide on transportation for more ideas on how to reduce your impact from getting around as well as reduce your need for money.
Harvesting rainwater is in a sense a way that you can use water that would have otherwise been wasted. It’s not so blatant like finding food in a dumpster but if you can harvest the water, use it for your needs, and then return it to the earth basically as it would have come down then you are pulling an opportunity out of that resource that would have otherwise been wasted. At the very least it is a way to reduce your impact and reduce the amount of money in your life. Harvesting rainwater is simple and this video explains how I do it.
A simple thing to do would be to continue to use water from your tap but to just use it multiple times before sending it down the drain. In this way you’ll be able to reuse water that would otherwise be wasted. This includes installing gray water from your laundry machine to water your garden or simply putting a 5 gallon bucket under your sink and opening up the drain to capture that water. See my guide on how to use less water for more ideas and inspiration. If you want to do something pretty extreme (and kind of fun) you could always find leaky sources like fire hydrants or hoses and harvest that water.
There are millions of vacant homes in the USA, according to a 2011 Amnesty International article their are some 18.5 million vacant homes. For a country with a population of 320 million that is an extremely large number of homes going to waste. With that in mind here are a couple of ideas for you.
Finding someone with a vacant home, condo, or apartment that is wasting away and making an agreement to live there in exchange for up keeping the house. Houses deteriorate from the weather and having someone in the house doing basic maintenance can save the owner 10’s of thousands of dollars in the long run.
Buy a cheap house that is wasting away. There are houses in Michigan and Florida for under $5,000 with big enough yards to grow a lot of food. Apparently you can get houses for a couple hundred dollars and be a part of a pretty interesting revival of the city.
Build a house out of wasted materials. There’s many ways of going about this. You can build a tiny house out of wasted lumber or an earth ship out of old tires and bottles for example. Or for materials from the lumber industry that would have gone to waste but instead were donated go to your local Habitat for Humanity or something similar. For some inspiration check out Waste House or my tiny house. You can get a lot of materials and even tools from the dumpsters of hardware stores as well.
This is another gray area of waste, but take a moment to think about it from this perspective. We harvest a tiny fraction of a percentage of the suns energy in the form of solar energy when we know that it could provide clean (and free once installed) energy to us all. It’s a bit wasteful to still be pulling oil from the ground when we could be harvesting a clean and renewable form of energy. So I would suggest going solar if possible. If not I would check out my guide on how to use less electricity.
There’s always other ideas like building a bicycle powered blender or washing machine, using a solar oven, using hand cranks to generate light, etc. There are so many ways to get tasks done for free and cause minimal environmental harm rather than having to plug into a grid.
A great way to generate heat is to use wasted wood such as pallets. Just make sure your not burning wood that was treated with chemicals.
Anything that you can’t find a free wasted source for I would recommend checking out reuse stores and thrift shops so that you can buy stuff that is used. This is where you can get most of your clothing, electronics, household items, etc.
Hobbies, Passion, Free time
Make a musical instrument out of garbage and blow people’s minds with the beauty that can be made out of trash. Check out Landfill Harmonic for some serious inspiration
Make art from wasted materials. Artists have explained to me that working with wasted materials opens up their creativity and saves them a ton of money.
Rescue food and feed people in need. Imagine being able to feed thousands of people and it not costing you a penny. Food Not Bombs is an inspiring example of this, but anyone can do with some resourcefulness and dedication.
Host classes or workshops. To teach others how to reuse wasted materials whether it be for art, building, home improvement, or whatever you may be passionate about.
There are many ways that you can turn waste into an income to support yourself. Here are a few ideas for you:
Starting a compost program where you pick up kitchen scraps for a monthly fee and then sell the compost. Take it a step further and grow food with this compost to sell at the farmers market or a roadside stand.
Make a craft out of wasted materials. This could be furniture or picture frames out of salvaged wood or jewelry out of scrap metals and textiles, as a few examples.
Resell wasted stuff that you find in alleys or commercial dumpsters. I’ve heard of people who make over a few thousand dollars a month doing this. This could be electronics, furniture, household items, really anything that people toss out that has a value.
Start a nonprofit that aims to end waste somehow and then pay yourself a reasonable salary as the director or just work at a nonprofit that is working to end waste.
If you’re inspired act now! Have fun with it, be passionate about it, and inspire others to use our resources wisely.
To successfully live off waste I would also recommend that you learn to live a near zero waste lifestyle. Check out my guide for that here!