Taking the lid off the freegan phenomenon

Most people probably don’t ever notice how fickle we are as consumers, since the only food we ever come across is on gleaming shelves, freshly packaged and aesthetically pleasing. All the dirty work is done for us. Consider the amount of waste that occurs in the food industry, to the tune of 1.3 billion tons per year – about one third of total food produced for human consumption. As a point of comparison, the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, weighs 500,000 tons. All of this food isn’t entering a waste void in the centre of the Earth, either. It is right under our noses, wrapped snugly in black plastic blankets designed so that we don’t even have to smell it.

I’ve often wondered where all the unsold food at the supermarket ends up. As it turns out, the answer is depressingly simple: supermarkets simply throw it away, and then lock up their garbage cans so nobody can eat it. Food waste is an environmental issue, as well as a political one.

A concerned minority is trying to reclaim the grub we passively classify as ‘rubbish’. They call themselves ‘freegans’, and they are a branch of anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist culture inspired to take matters into their own hands and challenge societal norms – and occasionally the law – to get what everyone else wishes they had: free food.

The only gear you need for a successful dumpster diving expedition, also known as ‘skipping’, is a headlamp, some comrades, and a bag to carry the haul in. It’s entirely possible to come away with £50-100 in food, especially at places like Waitrose, who aren’t fussed about tossing away ‘artisanal cheese’, venison meatballs, and different flavours of hummus.

A 2nd year student at the University of Edinburgh described her first diving experience as “exciting.” There tends to be lots of fresh bread and potatoes. For locked bins, a skeleton key can be bought online for £4, which is used by most major supermarkets.

Freegan blogs assure us that they only take what they need, and they aren’t depriving the homeless of food either. However, if you’re considering skipping, you should know there’s a possibility you could be arrested. Whilst in France one can access a bin freely, according to The Telegraph three men were charged in London under the 1824 Vagrancy Act after hopping a fence at an Iceland supermarket.

In a dry, non-committal statement defending the British Retail Consortium’s decision to prosecute, later rescinded, director Helen Dickerson said, “I think there are laws and regulations out there and it is important that everyone in the country is aware of what they are and complies with them.”

Finn Weddle, an Edinburgh student, claims supermarkets technically “abandon” the food when it is placed in a bin, even though they still own it. This puts skipping in a legal grey area that will most likely depend on how obtrusively you go about your business. Weddle also identifies with the political stance some freegans assume by saying; “Making use of this waste is a political statement that this is food that is wanted and necessary for people to eat.” It’s clear that freegans are taking a stance because our current system of consumption makes waste acceptable, and thus removes it from the public consciousness.

It should be stressed here that the emphasis is not on defiance, or stealing for that matter. This issue concerns eating alone. That glorious activity many take for granted, and multitudes more struggle to accomplish daily. But if, like Helen Dickerson, you are opposed to anarchy, there are other ways to help out. You could join a local food co-op, grow your own veg, or simply commit to a more conscious lifestyle.

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