Here’s what I learned about food waste after sorting through scraps in London.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and I’m face-first in a supermarket dumpster after trespassing down an alleyway in central London.
I’m not penniless or living on the street, and I’m not sifting through trash out of hunger or desperation. Joining a group that believes most food thrown out by shops shouldn’t be trash in the first place, I’m dumpster diving.
My companion, an experienced dumpster-diver I’ll call “Mark,” has gone one step further, climbing straight into the dumpster and squatting down to rummage through the contents. We sort through packaged and loose food in search of anything suitable to go into our bags and home with us on the Tube.
My guide has agreed to help me by bringing me along for his “midweek haul.” He joined the dumpster diving, or “skipping,” culture after being introduced to it in Leeds through The Real Junk Food Project, an organization that takes food meant for waste and uses it to create delicious, healthy, and free meals for anyone who wants it through their chain of cafes.
Learning the tricks
I’d met my guide for the first time at Oxford Circus station earlier that night, wondering if stealing trash out of dumpsters would be something I could actually do. It was.
Dumpster divers say stores with lots of fresh produce (like Whole Foods) are the best targets, along with cafes that only keep their food for one day. The trick is to not be choosy. We found vegetables, meat, packaged biscuits, pasta—even a bottle of wine. If it’s edible, you take it.
The product I see the most is bread: packed loaves, croissants, and huge bags of bakery goods, thrown out at the end of the day.
“Bread is good and we always take it if we can, but it does go stale faster than other food, so we leave it in the place of food like vegetables and cereal,” my guide says. “We have to take food we know will stay edible long enough to get it to people who want it.”
I quickly learn to look at the actual produce, not just at the sell-by date. Supermarkets will throw out a whole bag of apples if one is moldy. That doesn’t mean the rest of the apples aren’t still perfectly fine to eat.
By the end of the night, I’m struggling to carry my bag of food to the station. The food we collected will go towards food banks, shelters, and community kitchens, along with filling Mark’s own cupboards—and for this week, mine, too.
Going to waste
In most cases, the act of taking trash and food from dumpsters is technically legal. In the U.S., a 1988 Supreme Court ruling (California v. Greenwood) stated that when a person throws something out, that item is now the public domain—therefore, you can take it.
This doesn’t mean that dumpster diving is easy, or that it isn’t often restricted. Most shops have security, not to mention high fences surrounding their bin areas. They don’t want you taking the food, even if the alternative is that it sits to rot. This is mostly due to liability concerns. Supermarkets say that they cannot legally sell food past its best-before date and that stopping people from bin diving is for their safety.
But this waste is part of the reason that a third of all the food produced for human consumption—approximately 1.3 billion tons a year—gets discarded, while 795 million people on the planet don’t have have enough to eat on a day-to-day basis.
At the same time, there are many groups putting time and energy into repurposing wasted food for consumption. Along with the The Real Junk Food Project and Save The Date in London, there are 11 worldwide freeganist groups on Meetup, and countless websites about reclaiming food waste.
Nearly a week later and back in my flat, I’m cooking a meal after work. Chopping a sweet potato, onions, peppers, jalapeños, and mushrooms, I throw them in the pan to make my favorite weeknight meal of veggie fajitas.
I’m still living off the food from my night with Mark. This is six-day-old food from the dumpsters. It’s not moldy; it’s not gone off. It’s still fresh.
I imagined stale bread and rotting vegetables, but I got something really different. I made couscous with brie and salad; shakshuka; vegetable sandwiches. I thought I’d be hungry and the week would be a test of my endurance to not buy more food—but I fed myself happily.
It turned out that a week eating out of supermarket bins was easy—and that’s terrible. We need to figure out a way to get this perfectly good food to the people who need it.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mpora.