*THIS STORY WAS NOMINATED FOR A WELL FED NETWORK AWARD FOR THE BEST FOOD BLOG-POST*
I'd first heard about Freeganism, a worldwide anti consumerism movement, whilst watching Gordon Ramsays The F Word TV show where top end food critic Giles Coren gathered himself a meal from a dumpster. Since then Oprah has devoted several episodes to the idea along with the idea of living on less and reducing the amount of conspicuous and unnecessary consumption. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept itself, Freeganism is a movement, borne of a reaction to the mindless consumerism and wastage that goes on around the world. An offshoot of Freeganism, is Dumpster Diving aka Skip Dipping or Urban Gleaning, where people salvage still edible food (as well as other things) by foraging through commercial dumpsters. Its not a huge movement here in Australia but it certainly has a very organised and strong movement in the US and UK. The participants include middle class people, students and pretty much anyone and everyone (ok except maybe A-list celebrities although I wouldnt discount D-List Big Brother reality show types). People that can afford to buy the food, but dont because there is so much thrown out already.
There is also an offshoot of Freegan which is the Meagan, vegetarians who only eat meat will be discarded and therefore its life hasnt completely gone to waste. Which brings up an interesting question that my husband asked his vegetarian family. Would they eat roadkill? Their answer was, if they were starving although they would probably feel sick from eating meat. Hmmm.
For most, there is a line where if it goes into a bin, they dont want it. But a lot will buy an item that is nearing its use by or best before date, if discounted or if in desperate need of that item. So the actual point of refusal is if it actually makes it into the bin. Once its in there, most people wouldnt be interested in it but before that point, its fair game (depending on the produce, sashimi would be out). And I think whilst many would pick up hard rubbish items like furniture on the side of the road, they may draw the line at picking up a food item in a dumpster, either through fear of food poisoning or another reason.
And why Freeganism? Over 17 million tonnes of solid waste is disposed of in Australian landfills every year.*
An internet search revealed that whilst the US has websites devoted to where one can Dumpster Dive, or Skip Dip as Australians like to call it, organised by state, city and area, Australia has no such directory of sites. I decided to find out a bit more about it and contacted Ash Falkingham, Dumpster Diver expert and veteran of 4.5 years Dumpster Diving across the UK, US, Canada, Germany and across Australia. I got in touch with him through a Freegan message board where there were about a dozen freegans wanting to meet up and Dumpster Dive together. He responded quickly and was amenable to showing me around the best places to Dumpster Dive as he likes spreading the word.
When we picked him up at his terrace house, it was 8.30pm at night on a cold Sunday night. He was well dressed in a jacket, shirt and pants and carrying a spiffy camera. He was accompanied by his friend, another chap called Ross, another hardcore Dumpster Diver who lives in a Motorhome. We traveled to an Inner City Coles dumpster. They warned us that whilst this was an excellent place for food, it was probably the dirtiest dumpster we'd see tonight. Parking a little far away, we walked over to the Dumpster. I had no idea what to expect, having never looked in a Dumpster before (and on TV, dont they always contain a dead body? OK too much Law & Order for me). But my husbands eyes lit up and they grabbed a hand of bananas from the top in great condition.
Cat food with broken packaging
Soon they were pulling out all sorts of items including tortellini, pasta sauce, ham, cat food and bread, some covered in cream as a bottle of cream had broken open. For the most part it was in excellent condition and whilst there were items on the ground, Ash and Ross wouldnt take those. With a box full we walked back to the car, stunned at what we had found. Around the corner, a trip to a crowded Petrol station yielded a dumpster without much except for orange juice all the way at the bottom. Keen to not draw attention to ourselves, Ross hung back while we eager newbies went to have a look with Ash.
Juices at a Petrol station dumpster
We were keen to try some more places so Ash showed us a location of a CBD Supermarket skip. He said that during the day, there is a massive amount of food in there and no-one bats and eyelid, especially if you look like an employee going through the skip. Unfortunately tonight, the roller door was closed.
Salvaged goods from Woolworth and Health Food Store
We drive further North to the lower north shore to a set of Skips for a health food chain and a Woolworths supermarket. The health food store dumpster is mostly full of paper, scraps and cardboard but foraging under the cardboard we find some Organic Earl Grey green tea and a Celestial Seasonings sampler box both brand new and sealed with plastic. In the supermarkets skip we find a range of fruit and vegetables, some in better condition than what youd see in the actual supermarket. Ross also spies two 20litre drums of vegetable oil and points out that it could power a diesel car.
Two 20 litre drums of pure cottonseed oil
We see an old man curiously looking at us and then take a crate and help himself to the things in the dumpster although he refuses Rosss offer of a hand of bananas and walks off looking at us as if wed fallen from a spaceship. Perhaps hes a regular diver there and resents people taking his stash. Other people that walk past us look at us curiously and without judgement, perhaps because we are well dressed with photographic equipment and just happen to be grabbing stuff from the dumpster. Some people dont even bat an eyelid.
We ask Ash if hes ever gotten sick from eating food from a dumpster and he says that this only happened once, from eating meat that was not cooked through properly. He also avoids seafood when Dumpster Diving which is obviously a wise idea. His motivation for doing it? He dislikes the amount of waste that he sees on a daily basis and consumerism for the sake of consuming. Plus of couse, you cant discount the idea of getting something for free. And he has been extreme Dumpster Dumpster too-he got into a compactor in the US where they tend to crush most of their garbage. Thankfully he knows when the compactors are full, as indicated by a strong smell.
Ross got started with hard rubbish days in the 80s. Later, while dumping some of his own rubbish into a dumpster he discovered a huge bounty of free food. He has been Dumpster Diving mainly in Sydney and Melbourne and he adds that it can be somewhat of a compulsion. Whilst walking around day to day he sometimes has to curb the urge to check out a Skip. Both Ash and Ross have a $0 grocery bill although they do find that sometimes they do have to spend money if they are out and want to buy a cup of coffee at a café.
And what of their greatest finds? Fishermen brag about the size of the fish that they caught, so why wouldnt Freegans remember their greatest finds as fondly? Ash recalls seeing huge boxes of frozen pies in Darling Harbour on NYE with a chain of people throwing at least 20 boxes full of frozen pies into a giant skip bin. He asked if he could have a box and they obliged him with one box which was so large it was all he could carry. He also found a Apple Wi-fi AirPort which was brand new in its box. And its not just things from Skips, he also found a latest model mobile phone in a fountain which he took to get repaired only to be persuaded to sell the parts to the mobile phone shop for a couple of hundred dollars.
A salvaged Paw Paw
Rosss greatest find was around Christmas one year where he found five cases of expensive, imported beers thrown out, due to an overstock. His eyes are wistful as he recalls the names of the beers. Another one of Rosss fondest memories is Anzac Day this year where he came across fifty 1 litre bags of liquid omelette, bacon, sausages leftover from a Diggers breakfast. More recently, both of these were topped when he found 4 cases of bottled wine.
And what if they find something that they dont want? Easy, put it up on freecycle to find someone else that could use it. Some people even make a living selling the things that they find (usually electronics) on ebay. And the dream find? Both Ash and Ross want to find a working laptop.
My husband asks them what is the weirdest that theyve found as he recalls an article where someone found a fake scrotum in US which is so hilarious and bizarre at the same time and makes me wonder, who made the first deicision to touch it? Did they think that someone had been Bobbited?. Ashs strangest find was a petrol generator in a Big W bin in Bendigo. It had the fuel lines cut, but he managed to recycle it and give it new life by giving it to Ross' brother to repair and use.
From a Woolworths and a Health food store
And which supermarket or store chain has the best Skip produce? They both prefer Coles, although Aldi reportedly has the cleanest bins and good fruit and vegetables. And for both, finding food in a well known Bakery chains skip is like hitting motherload for bread due to the sheer amount that they throw out as the chain doesnt discount at the end of the day. Sometimes they even find that the types of breads are sorted into different bags. Ross recalls fondly the times that he found enough bread for a week and how he used to regularly go there until it triggered a gluten intolerance. We ask them about why bakeries dont give it away to charity and Ash explains that charities can only take a fraction of it, that a large proportion of it just has to be thrown away.
We ask them, what are the reactions from people at the stores are and they explain that the lower down the food chain, the more sympathetic they are. Managers or people that dont have anything to do with disposing of rubbish and dont see how much is thrown out are less sympathetic and can get aggressive. But they can be persuaded at times. Once, Ash was confronted by a African Security guard over an avocado which he had just picked out and once he showed him the pristine condition of the fruit and explained what he was doing, the guard had little choice but to agree.
Spreading the word/more than just stuff for free
Given how much weve found just by traveling to a few select dumpsters, we ask what they most commonly find. It can be a range of things but very commonly, a whole carton of eggs will be good with only one broken and as they broken egg has leaked all over the carton, the whole carton goes into the trash.
And what of other wastage? Ash finds that one of the most heartbreaking things is seeing Fairtrade food which comes all the way from the other end of the world (requiring large amounts of fossil fuel), only to be chucked in the bin here. Which brings up an interesting dilemma, do we buy local or Free Trade food?
And its not just food, Electronics often get smashed up so that they wont be usable which creates an enormous amount of waste. Is it better to give it to someone who can use it rather than create more rubbish? CRT TVs are often smashed up to get precious copper out although again, is it worth smashing an entire television up to get the copper? Conversely, CRT televisions use up more energy. Recycling to Op Shops can work but often Op shops throw out an unseemly amount of usable product too.
This is why Ash tries to get the word out on Freeganism and let people know about the amount of food that goes to waste. Once, he got a whole tray of peaches from Aldi and went out into the street and started giving them to people outside. Some asked where he got it from and he was only too glad to talk with them about it.
Overseas and interstate
And what have they found from state to state or country to country?
In Victoria, alcohol can be sold in supermarkets and disposed of, in NSW it must go back to distributor. But aside from that, there isnt a great deal of difference between the states, Ross says.
In the UK, Marks and Spencer used to put bleach over the food but it is now illegal to do so so they now put blue dye all over it to discourage foragers. Ash actually has footage of himself with blue dye all over his hands as a result of going through their Skips. Another bakery chain in the UK even had something along the lines of Wed rather it get eaten than it go to waste printed on their bags. When confronted, a Dumpster Diver simply showed them the bag with their slogan (which incidentally has since disappeared from the bags).
According to Ash, betweeen UK, US and Australia there is not much difference although in the chilly UK winters things can be out for 3 days and still be ok as theyll be frozen. Further afield in Greece there was not much on offer and in India and Kenya there was virtually nothing to be had in the Skips.
Want to Dumpster Dive?
Interestingly, the Homeless dont seem to Dumpster Dive, rather Ash says that in general they need people to look after them because of whatever issues they may have so they prefer to go to soup kitchens. Several times, he has told them where to go for food but they dont or wont do it. They also have particular preferences for foods and are comparatively choosy. I cant help but think back to the Seinfeld episode where Elaine tries to palm off the muffins bottom to a Soup Kitchen to be given a sound drubbing by the woman who runs the Soup Kitchen who says Oh, so you just assume that the homeless will eat them, they'll eat anything? I know what you thought. They don't have homes, they don't have jobs, what do they need the top of a muffin for? They're lucky to get the stumps. OK I will use any excuse to insert a Seinfeld reference but this one was relevant.
Theres very little competition, and people like to Dumpster Dive in groups. Indeed when you come across another Dumpster Diver they will offer or show you good things from the dumpster or swap items with you. I ask Ash why there isnt any competition and his answer is simple, there is already so much available every single day that they couldnt possibly use and they know that tomorrow will be the same. Generally, the ones new to Dumpster Diving tend to grab everything but the more you do it the more discerning you are because you learn youll never use it all.
Ash and Ross recommend dressing well, perhaps not in your wedding suit but looking respectable. Youll encounter less opposition and Ash points out, he often gets away with it if he looks like he may be a store employee.
Although some people have been arrested in the U.S. (it is illegal in some states), Ash tells us that no-one in Australia has been prosecuted. Nevertheless, if confronted, be polite and walk away. If you hear someone coming, it is easier just to walk away rather than risk confrontation.
There is a useful set of rules and tips that "The Dumpster Lady" has laid out.
If the packaging is puffed up, the vacuum seal broken, or it is on ground dont take it. With items that have expired or if its a warm day and food may have been out for a long time, eat items that you know what they should taste like. Smell is a very good indicator.
There are either items that are thrown out because the outer packaging is torn or marked or items that are past their use by date. Obviously the ones with torn outer packaging should be fine as long as the inner packaging is sealed, however use common sense when eating food past it Use By or Best Before date. Best Before means that the taste is somewhat affected after the date but it is generally edible. Use By is a stricter code for items such as meats or dairy where the item is generally more compromised after the date given.
Never eat food that is not sealed. Restaurants are not as good a source as the food is not sealed.
And of course, this is not a comprehensive or exhaustive list of precautions, for more details see http://freegan.info/?page=DoctorsNote
Box of tea, sealed in plastic from Health Food dumpster
And our haul? We found a massive:
· Over 3 kgs of Bananas plus 1 lady finger banana
· A sealed packet of Planet Organic Earl Grey Green tea (25 bags)
· A sealed packet Celestial Seasonings sampler pack of tea
· 200g pre pack of button mushrooms
· 3 red apples
· 1 head of broccoli
· 7 tomatoes
· ½ paw paw
· 2 winter pears
· 1 mandarin
· 1 unwashed and 1 washed potato
· 1 bunch of choy sum
· 1 baby wombok
· ½ cauliflower
· 1 butternut pumpkin
· 2x packets of Don Lite leg ham 100g each
· 2 x packet sof Primo eat well chicken and ham 100g each
· Youll Love Coles 3 pack of croissants
· Bertoli sweet tomato pasta sauce
· San Remo Beef tortellini
· 1 loaf seeded bread
· 1 packet of bread rolls
· 6 packets of cat food
For more information, see: www.freegan.info
- Skip Dipping In Australia, Australia Institute Webpaper February 2006