It was 9:15 at night when I arrived at a dark parking lot behind a supermarket on the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. A few minutes later, a car showed up and parked in front of the dumpster bin. Three women hopped out of the car, opened the bin and dove in. Not long after, they reemerged with three bottles of vodka and five bottles of wine.. Not a great night, considering that on another night, one of them found 20 crates of cider in the same bin.
These women are dumpster divers. They ‘rescue’ thrown-out food from meeting an early end in supermarket bins.
So far they had collected quite a haul from dumpster diving - a box of chocolate croissants, 12 cans of cat food, a merino wool jumper and a baby capsule, just to name a few.
“I’ve found lots of children’s goods, clothing, underwear, socks, you name it. It’s all pretty much in the bins somewhere. You just need to go and have a look,” one of them said.
All three said they did it to reduce food waste –something which Australia has plenty of. According to an official report from the Department of Environment, more than 4 million tonnes of food are wasted every year in Australia alone.
One of the women, Dana (not her real name), is a student and a single mother with 4fourchildren. Dumpster diving, she said, was her way to reduce grocery bills.
I followed these three women to the second dumpster bin. When it was opened, instead of a rancid smell I had been expecting, the aroma of fresh bread wafted through the air. Still, I felt uncomfortable and held my breath. Underneath it all there was also a feeling of excitement, especially when a black bag full of croissants, 6 bouquets of flowers, a fresh-looking cabbage and 10 jars of unopened hazelnut spread were pulled out of the bin.
Another of the women, Amber, has done this for over a year, and, even though she has never been sick from eating the food she found, she is still very careful.
“I think the misconception is that when people are taking food out of the bin that all of the food is mouldy... People need to understand that you’re only taking 1% of the produce out of the bin when you go dumpster diving. So you’re actually picking the best of the best.”
Rescuing food, rescuing people
Not all supermarkets dump still-edible food into their bins. Some give them away to organisations like Fareshare, a non-profit organisation based in Melbourne.
They collect food and turn it into meals for Victorians who are struggling to get enough to eat. This year, they have rescued 144.5 tonnes of food, and had given away more than 360,000 meals.
Fareshare’s CEO, Marcus Godinho, explained that it is becoming harder for businesses to waste food as Australians are getting more informed on environmental problems. But he added that Australia still has a long way to go to reduce the amount of food that ends up in the landfill.
“It’s the economics of it. For a bakery, it makes more sense to offer their customers a wide range of products, and at the end of the day to have a lot of bread left that they throw out.”
“They know that having shelves stock so that people have a choice is more important than running this stock down towards the end of the day.”
Marcus also added that it is also the responsibility of households to reduce their wastage by eating responsibly.
“Have a look in the pantry, in the fridge. Think creatively about how you can use what’s already at home, incorporate that in to the meals you’re going to be cooking over the next week.”
“If we rewind the clock a few generations, we go back to the first half of the 20th century, that’s how our family operated. They were very frugal, they were very resourceful, and they looked at reducing food waste rather than throwing it away”
Meanwhile, back at the dumpster, the sentiment is the same. After a successful food rescue operation, Amber did not have to think too much to say why she choses to do dumpster diving.
“I’m not sure how people think that it’s acceptable to live in the society that has that level of waste”