(LifeWire) -- Madeline Nelson finds a bag of slightly bruised apples and day-old bread left in a supermarket's Dumpster too tempting to pass up.
Cindy Rosin rummages through discarded produce in trash bins outside a Manhattan grocery store.
"A lot of perfectly good food is thrown away," says Nelson, a spokeswoman for Freegan.info, a New York City group that promotes "freeganism," which eschews conventional commerce in favor of a lifestyle that uses minimal resources.
Freegans try not to buy things new -- not even food.
Jumping into a garbage bin may sound scary, but Nelson, 52, who lives in Brooklyn, says it's no big deal. Humans, she says, are "hardwired to be foragers."
For the thousands who search online for free merchandise, pick up roadside castoffs and even dig through Dumpsters, paying for everything they need is yesterday's news.
At a time when many Americans are on tighter budgets and worrying about environmental conservation, the practice may get more popular.
Sometimes opportunities present themselves.
"I have picked up several free things over the years from the side of the road," says Kara May, 38, a Seattle stay-at-home mom. She recalls her acquisitions with a sense of achievement: There was the easel for her daughter; a set of like-new ceramic casserole dishes; a toy dump truck. Send us your recycling photos, videos
"I'm saving money, but I'm also reducing the amount of stuff that needs to be produced and that eventually may end up in a landfill," says May, a founding member of Going Green Family, a Seattle grassroots organization that helps families run environmentally friendly households.
New York City resident Christina Salvi, 32, agrees that curbside shopping is the way to go. "My whole apartment is furnished with discards," she says. "I find really great stuff all the time. Here in New York, it's kind of obscene how much goes into the trash."
Salvi helped launch FreeMeet, a local recycling event where people share their unwanted items. "Our goal is to have everything find a new home," she says.
Before hitting the mall, find out whether someone in your city is getting rid of the thing you want, says Deron Beal, 40, founder of Freecycle.org, a Web site built on the premise that "one person's trash is another's treasure."
Here's how it works: As in the "free" section of Craigslist.org, users post what they're giving or seeking, then coordinate the details. On thousands of Freecycle message boards, the dialogue looks like this: OFFERED: Two Pez dispensers. TAKEN: Krups espresso machine. WANTED: Garden hose that works. OFFERED: Adult diapers, size small.
It's an eclectic mix, but that means there's something for everyone, says Beal. He launched the nonprofit group four years ago with 20 or 30 friends. Now it has 4.5 million users, he says, with 70,000 newcomers each week helping to reduce the growth of landfills.
At the heart of Freecycle.org, Beal says, is a spirit of giving, not getting: People in South Dakota collected prom dresses for teenage girls; a 95-year-old Arizona man looks for old bikes he can fix up and give to disadvantaged children; others have joined together to find clothing and supplies for orphans in Haiti.
Beal uses the site, too, but only for giving. "My wife has made it clear that it's good for purging, not collecting," he says. "But I did get a George Foreman grill once." The people giving it away turned out to be neighbors he had never met. "When I picked up the grill, they also gave me a half dozen eggs from their chickens," he says. "It's a beautiful example of community giving."
FreeSwapper.org started last year to provide a similar service, and FreeSharing.org lists hundreds of organizations across the country with the same goals.
Curious about Dumpster diving? Freegan.info keeps a city-by-city listing of prime Dumpster locations, from bakeries to bookstores. Large chain stores in wealthy neighborhoods are particularly prone to tossing edible foods, Nelson says.
If you go, she advises, bring a friend (in case the lid closes on you) and wear gloves to protect your hands from glass and other sharp objects. Ask your local police department first whether it's OK -- some cities have criminalized Dumpster diving. Don't salvage things that need to be refrigerated or show traces of mold, and thoroughly wash any food you've taken from a Dumpster before consuming. It's also a good idea to conduct a smell test of any food you may take; if it smells bad, it probably is spoiled and should be avoided.
Nelson says freeganism has nothing to do with income. She says many divers, herself included, have at least moderate incomes: "It's really about boycotting the consumerist system."
But not everything can be found in a Dumpster. Nelson admits that some things must be acquired the old-fashioned way: at the store. Like cooking oil -- "You can never find enough of that." E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Sarah Jio's work has appeared in "Gourmet," "Health," "O, The Oprah Magazine," and many other publications.