Published on February 26, 2014 | by Dorothy Spencer


Freeganism: re-cycling the waste we don’t buy

man finding food in a skip

Supermarkets have been known to pour bleach into their bins to prevent people from taking the wasted food. [Flickr: Alecia Barnes]

Is it not frightening that despite being one of the most developed countries in the world with a GDP of £1.59 trillion and 145 Michelin starred restaurants, thousands of people still can’t afford to feed themselves?

In the last 12 months, food banks in Britain have reported a 170 per cent rise in visitors, all of whom face (the shame of) an assessment before being handed a voucher to collect their daily bread.

Overproduction is a feature intrinsic to capitalism, where production and distribution is shaped by the market and not by what people actually need.

This creates huge amounts of waste, and leads to the paradox of the have and the have-nots.

Multi-million pound houses sit opposite council estates; the rich dine in streets adjacent to soup kitchens, and we walk past the homeless in a city of incredible wealth and visible poverty.

Equality hasn’t even got as far as the food on our tables.

Freeganism rebuts this wastefulness by living off the discards of capitalism, subverting it from within its own walls.

Attempting to live without money and getting everything they need from another man’s rubbish, freegans effectively disengage in the free market principles of capitalism.

Food is often collected from bins to be distributed to others in the community in need, instead of relying on the state or charities to provide.


Steve Greekshire, a 52-year-old living in Stockwell, offers to introduce me to ‘skipping’ (the practice of ‘reclaiming’ rubbish from bins), something he has been doing for the last 25 years.

“The mass surplus waste can be recycled to help other people in need. It would be stupid to pay for things that you know are going to be thrown away,” he says.

While rummaging through bins might conjure up apocalyptic scenes of destitution for some, it turns out to be quite a relaxed morning.

Wandering round New Covent Garden Market at 11am on a Friday, which provides fruit and vegetables to many of the capitals shops and restaurants, it feels like shopping without spending.

The people here are quite aware that ‘skippers’ come to take the market’s discards, and seem quite comfortable about it, approaching to offer us boxes of eggs and other produce bound for disposal.

Oranges left out to waste

Some believe that ‘skipping’ is the perfect realisation of a victimless crime. [Flickr: Alecia Barnes]

We leave with bags filled with wild mushrooms, courgettes, bananas, potatoes, kale, fennel, parsley and radishes, and I wonder why people are sniffy about it.

It’s a sobering sight to see piles of perfectly good food heading for an early grave, and brings out the hoarder in me while I desperately think of what of I could do with 200 free-range eggs.

Greekshire tells me security guards will approach occasionally, mostly so they are seen to be doing their jobs on the CCTV that covers the area, but are unlikely to go any further if you walk away.

“There’s an etiquette to it, we put everything back the way we found it and don’t leave any mess,” he tells me.

Yet earlier this month, three men were arrested under the archaic 1824 Vagrancy Act for taking food – including mushrooms, tomatoes and Mr Kipling cakes – from bins outside an Iceland in Kentish Town.

The Crown Prosecution Service claimed there was “significant public interest” in prosecuting the men, but after mass criticism the charges were quickly dropped.

The law concerning ‘skipping’ is up for interpretation, although it seems to me the perfect realisation of a victimless crime.


Tristram Stuart, the founder of campaign group Feeding the 500, agrees,“I’m very clear that taking food out of the bin is a perfectly just thing to do and the injustice is that we waste a third of the world’s food supply while one billion people go hungry.”

While some people see Freeganism as a political act, the vast majority of people, that Stuart has come across, were: “Not people like me doing it as a moral statement or protest, but because they couldn’t afford to buy quality food.”

The sad reality is there is enough to go round, the corporate giant Tesco released it’s wastage figures last October, and revealed that 68 per cent of bagged salad was thrown out, 35 per cent after sale, as well as 40 per cent of apples and just under half of bakery items, it’s just a matter of distributing it.

Commenting on the figures, Hannah Stoddard, head of economic justice policy at Oxfam, said: “Wasting this amount of food when almost a billion people go hungry every day and record numbers in the UK are using food banks, is nothing short of a scandal. It is a damning indictment of a food system that places greater importance on corporate profits than ensuring everyone has enough to eat.”


Man pulls carrots from a bin

Once an item is past its sell by date it is illegal for supermarkets to sell. [Flickr: Anja Hermans]

Sadly, the most cost-effective way for supermarkets to get rid of stock is often by throwing it way.

Once something passes its sell by date it’s illegal for them to sell it, and giving it away would put the company at risk of prosecution.

Sometimes there edible food can be distributed through charities such as Fareshare, but this doesn’t happen near enough.

Instead, in a more sinister turn, a tactic of many supermarkets is to pour bleach or dye into their bins in order to make the waste food completely unfit for consumption in a childish display of I-don’t-want-it-but-you-can’t-have-it-either mentality.

Greekshire told me he had come across bins that had been soiled with human faeces in order to deter would-be skippers, giving new meaning to ‘don’t shit where you eat,’ an effective deterrent if ever there was one.

Annual figures from Wrap, the government’s waste advisory body, show that the UK discards 15 million tonnes of food each year, with households responsible for nearly half.

Almost four million tonnes of this are thrown away despite being edible.

Ultimately, the buck stops at our own doors.

While your pride might be uncomfortable with finding your dinner in a dustbin, and your taste buds might be disappointed when you get yesterday’s courgettes instead of steak, it is our responsibility to buy less, and resist the ploys of supermarket chains to persuade us to buy more.

Because we can’t directly see the consequences of our consumer demands, we feel little guilt about it, when ultimately we are implicit in the rape and waste of the world’s resources simply by demanding bananas all year round.

With reports of students using food banks to get through their studies with a belly full of more than just academia, could this be the perfect lifestyle option whilst at university?

Websites such as Freecycle are already a popular way to recycle unwanted goods, and reclaiming food bound for the bins is just an extension of this principle, albeit a extension some may find difficult to embrace.

It also means that instead of frequenting the budget supermarkets to save pennies, you can gorge on the discards of the pricier ones.


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