Waste not, want not

On the day Environment Secretary Hilary Benn MP called on supermarkets to cut their levels of food waste, I found myself in Leeds, Mr Benn’s constituency, to find...

I met up with two local Co-operative members, Andy Brown and Christina Macdonald, and over the course of a couple of hours on a dark, cold evening, we visited six different Co-operative stores. But it wasn’t the stores that interested us, it was their bins. 

Andy and Christina are both freegans — people who make use of things that other people throw away — and we were keen to discover what perfectly edible treats had been put out with the rubbish. All of the stores we visited were small to medium-sized Co-operative food stores — all reassuringly easy to spot with their new branding. 

As we approached the first store in Leeds, Andy and Christina pointed out the bins along an alleyway at the side of the shop. Meat products are put in a separate blue bin, but Andy and Christina focused on the red bin, the size of a small skip. As Christina held the lid open, Andy hauled himself up, reached inside and pulled out two large white plastic bags. 

They quickly established one contained only packaging so, without opening it, returned it to the bin, like a fisherman throwing back an insignificant catch. Deciding that the second bag required closer inspection they carefully opened it. 

Andy and Christina removed and examined each product in turn, checking sell-by and use-by dates before selecting a range of bread buns and loaves, several packs of garlic, cherry tomatoes and scones. They put these into the bags they’d brought before carefully replacing the remainder of the products in the white bags and returning them to the bin.

When we arrived at the second store, all the bins were housed in a fenced off compound, but, finding it unlocked, we ventured inside. Bread products were again prominent but, having checked them, it was decided they were probably not worth taking. A visit to our third store proved more profitable, with two four-pint cartons of milk, both just a day past their use-by date, and a range of vegetables, some still within date, being collected.

As we moved from store to store Andy and Christina explained how they’d first got involved in freeganism: “We found out about a catering firm in Leeds, which supplies fresh fruit and vegetables to hotels, restaurants and businesses. They are quite open to people coming at the end of the day and taking away anything that hasn’t been used.”

Supermarket staff are not always so accommodating: “We have had shop staff challenge us,” says Christina, “But we always try and explain why we’re doing what we do. It’s not about money, it’s about waste. Of course we don’t object to paying for food, but we do object to unnecessary waste — it’s dreadful that so much edible food is just thrown away.”

Christina has put her concerns in writing to the Co-operative Group and is still awaiting a reply. However, in a statement provided to the News, a spokeswoman for the Group said: “The Co-operative does not encourage freeganism, mainly because of the potential health risks posed by people consuming products that may have gone well past their best-before or use-by dates.

“The Co-operative Group has strict guidelines in place for the disposal of waste, and disposal bins at our stores are fitted with locks. However this does not always prevent the problem from occurring, and freeganism can also result in litter being scattered around which can be a problem for local residents. 

“The Co-operative endeavours to keep food waste to a minimum, and has several processes in place that aim to minimise product waste, both at store level and in the supply chain. The retailer is also an active supporter of WRAP’s ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign. The government-funded campaign aims to raise awareness of the need to reduce food waste, as well as providing practical advice and solutions to help consumers waste less food.

“In 2009, the Co-operative Group, launched a UK-wide series of Watch your Waste events to help tackle the growing problem of household food waste. Each year UK households throw away a staggering 6.7 million tonnes of food, 70 per cent of which could have been eaten. This works out at a cost of £617 per household and creates the same amount of CO2 as one fifth of the cars on the UK’s roads.”

The statement gets a sympathetic response from Andy and Christina, but they feel the Co-operative, an organisation which they, along with other members, own, could do more. “We believe that really drastic discounting on products that are about to be thrown away would encourage more people to buy them,” says Christina, “and surely it’s better to nearly give them away than just throw them away?”

Of the products we collected, most had been reduced, but not by a hugely significant amount — scones from £1.09 to 85p and garlic from around £1 to 60p. It’s worth noting that supermarket rivals Tesco frequently reduce products down to 5p.

“The Co-operative could even make food available to its members before it’s discarded,” says Andy. “Although we’ve never been ill from eating the food we’ve collected, we would accept responsibility should that happen. It’s usually fairly obvious what is still good enough to eat — a quick sniff is a good start.

”We don’t want to make things difficult for shop staff by encouraging a rush of bargain-hunting customers just as the shop is shutting, but an organisation as large and successful as the Co-operative Group should be able to do more.”

Arriving at the fourth store we found its bins locked away in a compound with metal cactus spikes along the fence top — the only inaccessible bin we came across that evening.

A rummage through the bins at the fifth store found no significant food waste — something which pleased, rather than disappointed Andy and Christina: “We’d far rather find all of the bins empty as it would mean that nothing was being wasted — unless other freegans have got there before us!”

Despite that, they were still excited to collect a bumper haul at our final store — more loaves of bread, garlic, pitta bread, cheese, fromage frais, double cream and jam slices — none of it in perfect condition, but all of it still edible. 

As we shared the evening’s takings out, we each left with bags bulging with food that a few hours earlier had been waiting for collection and, more than likely, landfill. 

We hadn’t been challenged at any store and had found easy access to the bins at five of the six stores. All of the bins seemed clean and tidy and Andy and Christina ensured they were left in the same condition.

Would all of the food we’d collected get eaten? Possibly, possibly not — some is shared with colleagues and friends, some frozen for another day and lots more that could have been taken was left behind. And even if some does end up back in bins, “at least we’ve given it a go”, says Andy, who once cycled home with eight multi-pack bags of crisps balanced on his handlebars.

While there is undoubtedly merit in the food distribution charities being championed by Hilary Benn MP, they may struggle logistically to deal with the perishable goods collected by freegans.

Andy and Christina accept it’s a complex issue with no easy answers, and they acknowledge the Co-operative Movement is taking some steps to address it, but until further action is taken, they and their fellow freegans will continue to dine on the food that others throw away.


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