By Christine Otsuka
On more than one occasion, Gerard Daechsel has been mistaken for a homeless man.
The lanky 74-year-old former journalist spends his spare time rummaging through trash bins scavenging for food, recyclables and anything deserving of a second home.
“Sometimes people try and give me money,” Daechsel says. “But I simply say, ‘No thank you, I’m doing this for the environment.’”
Daechsel is part of a larger culture known as “Freeganism.” Based on the words, “free” and “vegan,” freegans partake in an environmentally conscious lifestyle by re-using materials and choosing not to consume new products, including food.
Daechsel is a particular breed of freegan who identifies himself as vegan but eats meat purely to avoid it ending up in the landfill.
Scavenging is not a necessity for the freegan and avid composter.
His cupboards and fridge are packed with food that’s been tossed out. Much of what he eats is given to him by “fussy people,” or is the result of scavenging — leftover stock when convenience stores close down, canned food left behind when people move and whatever food he’s found rummaging for recyclables.
He gets by just fine. He’s rarely bothered by passers-by and hardly ever gets sick. He owns two properties in the Alexandria area in Eastern Ontario and rents an apartment in Centretown that’s crammed with old newspapers and treasures he has found in the trash.
“I buy almost nothing,” he says – except a bus pass and rent.
He’s hesitant to label himself as anything but an activist.
“Some people might call it being a freegan, but I call it reducing waste and taking care of the environment,” he says.
Although the number of freegans in the Ottawa area is difficult to determine, those committed to reusing in Ottawa exist in thousands in cyberspace. The Ottawa Freecycle Network helps to reduce the flow of trash into landfills by connecting people who want to get rid of unwanted possessions.
As part of the city’s waste reduction efforts, the City of Ottawa held its second Give Away Day over two days, Oct. 13 and 14.
To kick off waste reduction week, the city invited people to drag their unwanted possessions to the curb for others in the community to take and reuse, as long as they marked it “Free.”
The day, designated by the city, is intended to extend the life cycle of unwanted items, which in turn extends the life of the landfill site by keeping items out of it.
But Give Away Day conflicts with a city bylaw that prohibits anyone from taking anything set out for garbage or recycling collection.
The bylaw’s purpose is to protect the health, safety and privacy of residents and to keep the city clean, says Dixon Weir, acting director of the utility services branch at the City of Ottawa.
Earlier this month, a homeless man was threatened with up to $10,000 in fines for scavenging for bottles and returning them for a refund at a Beer Store on Rideau Street.
A bylaw officer handed Marcel Foucault a letter of reprimand the day after he appeared in the media.
Although the fines may range from $150 to $10,000 for repeat offences, Weir says the bylaw has yet to be enforced.
“At this point, making people aware is enough,” Weir says.
However, Give Away Day is what Weir calls, “a holiday against restricting scavenging.” On the designated day, bylaw officers turned a blind eye.
Some say the city is sending mixed messages by having bylaws that prohibit scavenging for people’s unwanted possessions and a day devoted to taking them off people’s hands.
Capital Ward Councillor Clive Doucet says the bylaw prohibiting scavenging doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“It’s a form of middle class nonsense,” he says. Many urban centres allow scavenging because it helps prevent recyclable cans and bottles from ending up in overcrowded landfills, Coun. Doucet says.
“It’s good for diggers and good for the city,” he says, adding he’s had numerous telephone complaints about the bylaw.
As for Daechsel, he says the city should be giving awards for people who want to reduce waste instead of handing out reprimands or fines.
He says nearly one-third of the blue boxes people leave out on the curb aren’t separated properly and more than likely will be sent to the landfill.
In this respect “scavenging” for him is separating the garbage, paper and plastic to ensure each gets to its proper destination.
“I can’t walk by knowing people’s carelessness will send those cans and bottles to the landfill,” he says.
Daechsel’s waste reduction efforts aren’t only about sustaining him, but helping others.
Finding new homes for the items he collects by scavenging often consists of placing them on his lawn, with a sign marked “Free,” but he says he doesn’t need a designated day to do so.
“It’s never long before what I put out there is gone,” he says.