Nick Harding went looking for free food in supermarket bins, but found a global eco-movement instead
It’s 9pm on a damp winter evening in the suburbs of London and I am standing in the drizzle in a loading bay behind a supermarket. It’s a large 24-hour outlet, so there is plenty of activity. My target lies inside a locked wooden enclosure. It is a dumpster. I approach nervously. A worker emerges from a side door and looks at me quizzically.
‘Can I look in your bins?’ I ask.
‘What for?’ he replies curtly.
I’m not in the habit of rummaging through dumpsters behind supermarkets looking for food. But I’m on a mission to discover whether stores persist in throwing away out-of-date, yet edible food. I’m on the trail of food waste and what I find is promising. It appears that in the UK and other progressive nations, the bad old days, when supermarkets would habitually throw away thousands of tonnes of unsold food, which would end up in landfill, are disappearing.
It appears that in the UK and other progressive nations, the bad old days, when supermarkets would habitually throw away thousands of tonnes of unsold food, which would end up in landfill, are disappearing.
The UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, for example, has dramatically reduced the amount of surplus produce fit for human consumption it generates. In 2016 – 2017, 5,700 tonnes of surplus food from its stores was donated to charity, 16,605 tonnes were used to make animal feed and 16,391 tonnes went to anaerobic digestion facilities and energy recovery schemes. Last year it agreed a deal to donate all the unsold food from its stores to charity and is aiming to eradicate all its surplus food waste by the end of the year.
The company states that currently, less than one percent of food from its stores is wasted, which still equates to 46,000 tonnes a year. In September this year, it also announced partnership agreements with 24 of its largest food suppliers who have agreed to halve their food waste by 2030.
There has been public outcry when activists have exposed how millions of tonnes of edible produce is simply thrown away because it has been on the shelves too long or because it fails to meet standards set by retailers
Tesco is not the only food retail giant to be taking food waste seriously. In the last few years, several eye-catching initiatives have raised public awareness of the scale of wasted food. Across many countries there has been public outcry when activists have exposed how millions of tonnes of edible produce is simply thrown away because it has been on the shelves too long or because it fails to meet standards set by retailers. Millions of misshapen vegetables were routinely rejected by stores, which argued that consumers were put off by less-than-perfect produce. Following pressure from campaigners, retailers such as Tesco, now sell this produce cheaply under specific brand names. Tesco’s, for example, is the Perfectly Imperfect range.
Which is good news for the environment, but not such good news for the Freegan movement; a quirky sub-culture of environmentally-friendly activists who go ‘dumpster diving’ for free food to eat or to distribute to those in need.
Des Kay, from Kingston upon Thames in Surrey was one of the pioneers of the freegan movement in the UK. He has been a freegan for over 40 years and runs the charity, Save The World Club, which collects and distributes food legitimately. He advises me that once, bins would have been laden with goodies, but that my efforts to find dinner in the dumpster behind the grocery store today will most likely end in disappointment.
‘I still get free food from shops and redistribute it to charities,’ he says, ‘but what changed is that supermarkets are all on the case now and they work with different organisations to ensure the food gets distributed fairly. This means much less food ends up in the dumpster or landfill. Bin diving doesn’t happen so much now because there is not that much available in a lot of places. There are still a few places, like the back of some petrol stations but on the whole things are much better.’
The practice of ‘rescuing’ food through dumpster diving – is legally questionable. Although the food has been thrown away and is destined for landfill, the food still belongs to the outlet disposing of it until it is taken away, at which point it becomes the property of the authority charged with disposing of it. In the early days of the freegan movement, many shops and restaurants would take extreme measures to discourage dumpster diving.
Des explains: ‘They would put dye or bleach on the food in the dumpster. They have woken up to the fact that most of it is perfectly edible. I have fed myself and thousands of others over the years and have never had a problem with stomach ailments.’
Another pioneer of the freegan movement is Brit, Tristram Stuart, who founded the campaign group Feedback. Tristram is an international award-winning author, speaker, campaigner and expert on the environmental and social impacts of food waste.
He explains: ‘The job of uncovering the global food waste scandal started for me when I was 15 years old. I had livestock and fed them in the most traditional and environmentally-friendly way. I went to my school kitchen and asked for the scraps my school friends did not eat. I got stale bread from the baker, and potatoes from a farmer who was throwing them away because they were the wrong shape or size for supermarkets. I noticed most of the food was fit for human consumption and that I was only scratching the surface; that right the way up the food supply chain, in supermarkets, factories, farms and homes, we were haemorrhaging food. Supermarkets didn’t even want to talk to me about how much food they were wasting.’
Food Waste Scandal
Tristram started to expose the issue by initially inviting press photographers along to freegan dumpster raids. He researched global food waste and wrote a prize-winning book about the problem, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal.
‘There have been some massively successful campaigns to reduce food waste and it is an issue that has been addressed company by company in their stores. The next focus is to address the reported waste in their own supply chains.’
In addition to the power of public awareness, which has undoubtedly forced retailers to look at their practices, new technology is also helping. OLIO is a free app connecting people with their neighbours and with local shops, so surplus food and other items can be shared, not thrown away. Karma is a similar app through which restaurants, cafes and grocery stores can sell good surplus food to consumers who rescue the food at lower prices, collecting it as a take-away.
The movement to cut food waste has become truly global and the issue has deep resonance in the UAE, which is one of the most proactive nations addressing the problem. The Government here aims to recycle 75 percent of food waste by 2021
The movement to cut food waste has become truly global and the issue has deep resonance in the UAE, which is one of the most proactive nations addressing the problem. The Government here aims to recycle 75 percent of food waste by 2021.
Each person in the country generates 2.7 kilograms of rubbish a day, which includes food waste. This rises to 5.4kg during Ramadan. In October, residents and the food industry were urged to implement zero tolerance on food waste by the UAE Food Bank and Dubai Municipality in support of the World Food Day. The municipality invited restaurants, shops, hotels and individuals to present ideas for reducing food waste along the entire food supply chain, from production, storage and processing to distribution and consumption.
Earlier in the year a survey found that leftover or discarded food in restaurants and extra food thrown away after celebrations were the main sources of food wastage in the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Up to 32 percent of food waste came from restaurants while 30 percent was uneaten food prepared for celebrations. The study was released by market research firm YouGov and also found that fruit and vegetables, dairy and canned foods were the main food categories being wasted.
Last year, Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence launched a campaign to raise awareness of food waste issues in the Emirate. Ivano Ianelli, CEO of Dubai Carbon, said that simple strategies such as planning meals ahead and using shopping lists to avoid impulse buys helps to reduce waste. He also advised sharing leftover food with family, friends, neighbours or delivering it to less fortunate people. Other tips include buying loose items and composting food waste, which can potentially divert up to 150kg of food waste per household per year from rubbish tips.
Public awareness and the momentum against the scandal of food waste continues to grow, yet the issue remains huge. Globally, about US$1 trillion worth of food is wasted each year, which is equivalent to about 1.5 percent of the worldwide economy. The future does look positive, however. On my investigations, I found no evidence of unnecessary waste and so, with more ingenious solutions and concerted effort to consume more mindfully, it seems probable that like me, the freegans of the future will be going hungry.