Another Person’s Rubbish

First published on The National Student on March 2 2011

They say the customer is always right. However the customer is also demanding, sometimes too demanding. We all know how frustrating it can be when the one thing we want in the supermarket has just run out.

It occurred to me this week, while reading about the case of Sacha Hall, who is being taken to court on the charge of ‘theft by finding’ for taking some of Tesco’s discarded food, that maybe customer attitudes are partly to blame for the food waste of retailers. Maybe we shouldn’t expect things so much and there’d be less.

Searching for salvageable food

Of course there is always the, more likely, argument that the reason that supermarkets produce so much is because they can afford it and just in case people do want it, they will earn more from selling it then they have spent producing it. You are a lot more likely to find a lot of edible waste in the bin of a large supermarket than a small independent shop as they probably had more stock to start with and it is likely to be wrapped in a lot more packaging.

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) we waste a third of our food in the UK, partly because businesses often throw out perfectly good food that is passed its sell by date or superficially damaged, as well as that no longer fit for consumption.

The fact is waste, in all areas of our society, needs to be reduced. WRAP say that 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food. Endless consumption is not sustainable. Many supermarkets use waste to go towards powering the national grid but still many are throwing out massive bins of good food every day.

People who make use of this waste are known as part of theFreegan community. People who try, at least as much as they can, to take themselves out of the system by not spending any money. A concept that has been made more popular by Mark Boyle, ‘The Moneyless Man’. Part of this lifestyle is taking food from bins known as ‘skipping’ or ‘dumpster diving.’

Of course businesses have concerns of getting sued if someone got food poisoning from eating their discarded food but surely if you get sick from eating food from a bin it is your own fault and definitely something that needs a little research on tips before doing it. Freegans need to be careful to look for open or swollen packaging and especially careful with meat and dairy products.

Ideally there would be systems in place to make sure that good surplus food goes to those who need it most. Organisations likeFareShare work with businesses to do this using surplus ‘fit for purpose food’ to give to organisations that work with the most vulnerable people in society.

In Sacha Hall’s case, Tesco said that the food had been left outside the store as a power cut meant a lot of chilled food had been ruined and couldn’t be sold but, in my experience, outside in Britain’s winter makes a pretty good fridge. So Hall and her friends made off with £215.16 worth of food which apparently included packs of ham and potato waffles.

Using someone else’s waste, apart from the obviously monetary benefits, can actually be empowering to do. I have been a regular in taking waste food from bins in the past, and so far have not suffered food poisoning as a result.

Journalists seem to be intrigued by the concept and when I was at uni my friends and myself would often get calls from a curious journo who wanted to come out with us one night. There have been articles and coverage in all sorts of places where journalists have been more than happy to get stuck in themselves, even those who turn their noses up to start with seem to be swung as soon as they see the masses of perfectly good food up for grabs.

Regardless of legality this is the first actual case I have seen and hopefully it will highlight the scandal of waste food and not set a precedent for more court cases against people making use of someone else’s rubbish.


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