How’s your dinner? Mine’s rubbish!

A woman in Essex has been arrested for taking food from supermarket rubbish. Police call it stealing. But she says she prevented good food going to waste.

Sasha Hall only makes £600 a month in salary. It’s not much to live on, especially with prices going up. So, when she saw bin bags full of discarded food being dumped outside her local Tesco, she thought it was her lucky day.

The bags were full of good things: Sasha filled her pockets with pies, waffles and ham, all within their sell-by date and still sealed in their packaging. They’d been thrown out because of a fridge malfunction at the supermarket. The food couldn’t be stored, so it was simply thrown away.

‘Tesco clearly did not want the food,’ said Sasha later. ‘They dumped it – and rather than see it go to waste, I thought I could help feed me and my family for a week or two.’

Sasha’s not the only one to have found her dinner in a supermarket bin. The UK has a growing number of so-called ‘freegans’ who feed themselves entirely on what food retailers throw away.

One freegan, Katharine Hibbert, wrote in the papers this week: ‘I have lived healthily for several years on discarded food. I take my pick from sacks full of heavily packaged sushi, bread, ready meals and fruit, all perfectly edible but dumped as they go out of date.’

Supermarkets dump huge quantities of food every day. The Environment Agency says that retailers produce 1.6 million tonnes of food waste each year – that’s heavier than 200,000 double decker busses.

Some waste goes to charities, but legal regulations mean it has to be transported in refrigerated vans, which is time-consuming and expensive. A growing amount of waste goes to ‘anaerobic digesters,’ which convert food into electricity.

The majority, however, just ends up in landfill sites. Worse yet, as it rots, it emits methane – a powerful greenhouse gas.

But although Sasha was helping to reduce this burden of waste, she found herself on the wrong side of the law. Police arrived at her house and arrested her for ‘theft by finding.’ Yesterday, she faced a magistrate’s court.

Supermarket sweep
So is it wrong to take food from supermarket rubbish? Many shops don’t like it, and either lock their bins or deliberately spoil food before throwing it away. The big chains agree that waste is a problem, but they say they’re doing the best they can, recycling where possible and trying to arrange charity deliveries. Perhaps freegans are just getting a free ride?

But freegans say supermarkets aren’t doing enough. If their bins are still full of edible food, and the world is full of hungry people, it seems a terrible waste not to eat it.

You Decide

  1. Do you think you could be a freegan and eat out of bins? Why / why not?
  2. Is it stealing to take things that others aren’t using? What if squatters moved into an empty house? Or someone took your old clothes?

Activities

  1. One way to reduce food waste is to use up leftovers. Think of some common leftovers in your house and invent a recipe to use them up.
  2. Food waste might not seem like a big problem but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Investigate some of the resources it takes to grow and sell food (e.g. water, land, energy) and some of the consequences of food waste. Present your findings on a poster or chart.

Some People Say...

“If I choose to waste food it's nobody else's business.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So are supermarkets most to blame for food waste?
Actually no. Most food waste comes from within the home. A 2008 study found that ordinary households create even more waste: 6.7 million tonnes each year. About one million tonnes of that is food that is whole or unopened.
Why’s it thrown away then?
Partly it’s because people are confused about use-by dates and best-before dates. Things shouldn’t be eaten after the use-by date, but may be fine after the best-before date.
And is all this food waste really that big a deal?
Well, it increases greenhouse gases, and it’s a waste of money. Worse though is that so much food is wasted when so many in the world have so little. According to food activist Tristram Stuart, the food that is wasted in Europe, the UK and the US, could feed the world’s billion hungry people four times over.