There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Everyone has heard the worn-out aphorism “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It teaches us to consider carefully what we throw away and whether others could make use of it. I take this phrase and put it into practice in my everyday life, but I apply it in reverse; I regularly take useful things from the bins (dumpsters, trash, whatever you want to call it!) of shops, mainly food from supermarkets, use this “trash” myself and share it with others. Most people- and I don’t blame you if you’re one of them- react to this at first a polite “Oh… I see!” and a slightly stunned slow nod, while privately thinking “Ok, I better not get too close, what if he smells like a rubbish dump?!” I’ve been doing this since I was about thirteen, so I can say pretty accurately that this is how about 9 out of 10 people react to me telling them about my “bin raiding” as I like to call it.

You probably imagine a bin to be a smelly, unhygienic receptacle, to open to throw something in and quickly slam shut to stop the awful stench escaping. That might be the case with your bin at home if you haven’t emptied it in a while! However, the bulk of what most supermarkets in the Western world throw away is perfectly fresh, good, edible food, tied up neatly in clean bags, rejected for all manner of ludicrous reasons. These reasons tend to be the following: the product is about to reach its expiry date and is not predicted to sell in time, the outer packaging is mildly damaged, or crazier still, the shop has ordered in far too much and so has no room left to store the product.  In short, perfectly edible, good quality food- food which required a vast quantity of energy to produce, transport, package and store- is thrown away in vast quantities every year.

Governments often tend to release avoidable household food waste statistics and all sorts of organisations get on at consumers for being wasteful in their own home. This is obviously an important thing to consider and put into practice in your life, but trust me, big business throws away more good food than you can possibly imagine. It is the main culprit. According to the BBC, Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, wasted 30,000 tonnes of food in the first six months of 2013 alone.[1] This is one company, out of thousands of others like it around the world. When 22,000 children are dying worldwide every single day due to poverty and half of all children in the world live in poverty, it is clear something here is very wrong with the balance in the global food system.[2] Businesses are buying and importing more than customers can possibly ever consume, often just simply out of the fear of the negative impact which having an apparently under-stocked shop or one which has a limited range of choices, would have on their public image. Businesses like Tesco have absolutely obscene amounts of wealth; their sheer size and important share in the grocery market allow them not only to buy goods in vast quantities, but also to place tough demands on their suppliers. Both these factors mean one crucial thing: they can buy their goods in extremely cheaply. This means in turn that any individual branch of a typical large supermarket can quite easily afford to throw away, say, 10-15 bags of bread on a daily basis.

To demonstrate how insanely far this phenomenon stretches, I’m going to tell you some of the best things I’ve ever found and why they appear to have been thrown away. The best thing was without a doubt the wine. Oh, the sweet, illicit joy of drinking that wine, underage at parks, at house parties, when friends came round for sleepovers… One night, aged about 15, I was bored having done all my homework. I casually said to my Dad, as I often did “I’m just off on a walk, I’ll be back soon!” “Take gloves!” he replied as always, knowing fine well what I was about to get up to. Dressed for the occasion, thinking myself to be some kind of revolutionary rebel, in my highly polished second-hand Doc Martens and leather jacket (wait, that’s how I always dress, even now), I slinked along down the road to the new supermarket which had just opened nearby, imagining that I was doing something akin to an act of treason, full of trepidation and fuelled by adrenalin. I arrived at the back of the shop, opened the huge big red skip, and much to my disappointment, it appeared to be empty. I was prepared to turn around and go back home empty-handed, expecting the usual shopping trolley full of groceries that I usually end up finding even today, when I spotted what appeared to be a small, empty box. I thought “Ach, there might be something there, it’s worth a look!” and so lifted it out. To my absolute unspeakable delight, it was a box of wine, undamaged other than a slight scuff and bash to the outer cardboard box. Here I had, aged 15, 3 litres of high quality, Fairtrade Cabernet Sauvignon at my disposal; I almost screamed with delight, however I then remembered I was in a heavily built-up residential area late at night so managed to suppress this.

On another occasion, I went with my brother to our local Waitrose bins -our absolute favourite bins at this time- as Waitrose is an expensive British supermarket, whose target customer is the upper middle class shopper looking for expensive delicacies alongside their typical weekly food shopping. Disappointed with the meagre 4 bags of luxury groceries we’d managed so far to obtain, we rooted around further, coming eventually to a promisingly large, heavy bin bag. We’d hit the jackpot. Now, I was at this time and still am a vegetarian, so what I’m about to express delight at will surprise you, but I’ll explain why I was so delighted in a moment. This bag contained not one, but five organic, free range pork joints, each weighing about 2kg, two 1.5kg packs of sirloin steak and several free range chickens. All intact, all even well within their expiry date, all clearly fresh and of extremely high quality. Of course, I had no plan to eat any of it, but this find would save my meat-eating family needing to buy meat for some time- thereby reducing demand. (You see, it’s the industry itself that I’m against, not the final product.) My Mum and my Granny managed to make this meat stretch out for an astonishingly long time; not only did my family eat this meat over the course of many meals, but also even secretly served it to guests on several occasions at parties attended by about 50 people. We usually still do whenever we host them. (Don’t tell my Mum I told you that!)

This was not the only occasion a member of family was of assistance to my bin raiding adventures. Aged 14, I once foolishly decided to help my Granny reduce the cost of her grocery shopping at the aforementioned Waitrose. She needed bread, so I offered to go round the back and get some from the bins while she did her shopping. My mistake was doing this in the daytime, during store opening hours. I was met at the front of the store not by my Granny, but two managers, who had seen what I was doing through CCTV cameras. They were not impressed. They asked me to come inside to the office, stood in front of me and tried their best to be physically intimidating, but I politely refused, saying I’d prefer to wait for my Granny to arrive. I knew there was no way they’d get away with even so much as laying a finger on me, so I firmly stood my ground and argued with them as well as I could, buying time until my Granny came to the rescue. “Did you know your grandson was doing this, Madam?” they demanded upon her arrival. Not only did she proudly tell them that she did know, but she then proceeded to give- in her tried and tested style-  a stern and forceful row, in the way in which she might have scolded one of her school pupils in her days as a teacher. She lectured them on the fact that so many people in the world are starving on a daily basis and stated that she had no idea how they could sleep at night in being complicit in this! I couldn’t have escaped this predicament without her help. We were both shaken by this incident, but I didn’t allow it to stop me from carrying on bin raiding. She has happily accepted huge donations of bin raided groceries ever since.

Bin raiding saves me, my friends and family a lot of money. It helps significantly reduce our environmental impact by reducing the need to buy groceries as often. It reduces the amount of food sent to landfill sites (where it will bio-degrade and produce methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases). Most importantly of all, is absolutely great fun. Here, it’s by and large accepted by police but not by shop managers; I’ve been seen by the police before while bin raiding and they haven’t been in the slightest bit interested in the fact that I was taking food from a bin. Of course the Waitrose manager didn’t take so kindly to my private food waste reduction scheme. Now, I’m not trying to incite you to commit illegal activities, as I don’t know what the laws on it are outside of the UK, but I would highly encourage you to try it; the thrill of the luck of the draw, of not knowing what you’ll find, gives a better high than almost anything I can think of. If you’re still feeling squeamish, if I haven’t exactly sold it to you, then look it up on Youtube; that way you can see from yourself, at a distance, the astonishing range and quantity of goods thrown away by supermarkets on a daily basis. There’s even a worldwide online bin directory, “Trashwiki”- it’s broken down into countries, with entries for most major towns and cities. (If you take a look in the “Edinburgh” section, you’ll find I’m responsible for many of the entries!) Whatever impression I’ve left you with of bin raiding, then at least you’ve learned that the next time somebody says “There’s no such thing as a free lunch!” that they are very wrong indeed.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24603008

[2] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

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