As the sun sets, and the last trolley is returned to the stand, a different queue of shoppers emerges from the shadows to sort through the waste products of the day’s trade.
They’re a mixed bunch and have a myriad of reasons for being here. But for many newcomers, bin foraging is an act of self-sufficiency in an increasingly unequal society.
Last month as the senate debated further cuts to an already squeezed welfare system, spurring Senator Lambie’s impassioned plea to empathise with how tough life can be for many Australians “through no fault of their own”, I ventured out to meet those who dive to survive.
As I walk over to the Aldi dumpster I notice an elderly man already busying himself collecting the unbroken eggs from the twenty or more discarded cartons.
He smiles warmly as he sees me approach and in a thick Italian accent he offers me some of his gleanings. I notice there is an ardent culture of sharing amongst food liberators.
“Come! I have too, too much already. Tonight is a good night, eh! There is much here now. You need eggs? Pears? How about chocolate, I know girls, they like the chocolate.”
I notice that he has accumulated about a hundred or more reindeer-shaped Malteaser bars: unwanted surplus from the festive season. Each one is individually wrapped and has more than six months left before they are estimated to expire.
I thank him for sharing with me and he introduces himself as Michael.
“I start to come here six weeks ago. I see someone else do, so I do too. Tell me, why would I buy these things when someone throw away good stuff for free?”
Among his loot he has packs of scented children’s pencils; they are for his grandchildren, he says. I muse to him how funny it is that pencils should have an expiration date. He nods solemnly.
Michael’s walker-trolley overflows with loaves of yesterday’s bread, punnets of strawberries, blueberries and kiwifruits, packets of spiral pasta and spaghetti. I do a quick tally in my head and realise his haul tonight would have saved this pensioner over one hundred dollars.
A grey ute cruises into the driveway and pulls up beside the bin. An energetic thirty-something in patchwork pants jumps out and hoists himself over the edge of the dumpster.
His name is Louie, and he is a student at Victoria University in Footscray.
He dives into this dumpster regularly, he says, to supplement his fortnightly Centrelink pay and the meagre wages he earns from working weekends in hospitality.
The recent announcement by the Fair Work Commission of an imminent reduction of Sunday penalty rates has steeled Louie to rely more heavily in future on supermarket waste for his weekly groceries.
“It just means I’m going to go dumpster diving more. I’m a full-time student so Sunday is one of the only days I can work a solid shift”, he said.
He admits to buying roughly thirty percent of his weekly groceries and boosting the rest of his diet with ‘dumpstered’ food and leftovers from work.
“When I first came to Melbourne, in late 2015, I was broke, busking on the street, and starving, so I went to the nearest Aldi bin and had a look and found a week’s worth of groceries.”
He says he felt like he’d won the lottery after that initial success, and has now joined a growing community of people who regularly liberate waste produce from bins and call themselves ‘freegans’.
Dumpster diving is not a new phenomenon but it is still stigmatised and sits in a grey area of the law. While it is not strictly unlawful, divers can be prosecuted for trespassing on private property, and say they regularly cop verbal abuse from supermarket staff.
There are legal, charity-based alternatives to diving into bins for food. Food Bank says it provides donations-based food relief to over half a million Australians every month. But also concedes that its services are stretched, and has to turn away 43,000 people every month.
“The demand for food relief is rising, irrespective of national economic growth… last year saw an increase of eight percent in the number of people seeking food relief,” said a spokesperson for Foodbank.
Louie says he’d prefer to use his own resourcefulness than rely on these charities to feed him.
“I’d rather leave that food to those people who are in desperate need. Plus there’s still heaps of food in the bin on its way to a landfill grave even after these charities have taken the majority of the leftovers”, he said.
Aldi, Coles and Woolworths now have initiatives in place to donate excess stock to Food Bank, Second Bite or OzHarvest.
“If the food in our Supermarkets cannot be sold, Woolworths is committed to directing food waste to other forms of beneficial reuse”, a spokesperson from Woolworths has said.
Of course this doesn’t account for the wastage between farm and supermarket shelves due to strict cosmetic guidelines put in place by supermarkets and driven by consumer demand. This waste can be as high as fifty percent of the yield of grown produce.
Government food safety and hygiene regulations also prevent food rescue charities from accepting a wide range of wasted items from supermarkets. Rejected items still end up in the dumpsters behind supermarkets.
Second Bite explains in its donations policy that processing and turnover times require the items to be in an ‘edible state’ up to 48 hours after their pickup time. Refrigerated or cooked items, and most fresh produce either fall outside these donations guidelines, or need special handling procedures, like refrigerated transport, to qualify.
Rikke works full-time in a popular bakery in the Melbourne CBD and is in charge of disposing of the day’s unsold goods, which could be up to one hundred items daily.
“When I asked the owner why we didn’t (give the unsold items away), he said it’s against the law to hand out leftovers”, she said.
“He said there’s an issue of liability if someone gets food poisoning from food we’ve given away for free.
Still, it really is awful seeing all the waste that could have gone to someone who needs it.”
According to the Health.vic website, The Food Act 1984 does not specifically prevent businesses from donating food, and ‘Good Samaritan’ legislation provides indemnity for businesses who choose to donate ‘safely’, provided they go through existing registered charitable organisations.
The reality, though, is that for small food business owners the effort and cost involved in keeping in line with safe handling procedures often overshadow the desire and ability to donate leftover food. The 250 000 tonnes of food wasted by Australian restaurants and hospitality businesses every year prompted SecondBite founding CEO, Katy Barfield, to launch a new food app called Yume which offers surplus restaurant dishes for one dollar or less.
Our society’s preoccupation with immaculate hygiene is clearly contributing to an untenable food waste problem. Firstly, organic matter decomposing in landfill releases methane, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for generating climate change. Secondly, the amount of wasted produce in economically prosperous countries outweighs the total amount of food produced in sub-Saharan Africa. Australia is responsible for 4 million tonnes of edible food waste annually.
According to global marketing research firm Nielsen, for larger food companies, like supermarkets, corporate responsibility-based green initiatives have the ability to convert public sentiment into dollars at the checkout.
A spokesperson for Aldi avoids comment on the company’s views of dumpster diving but says the company makes sure through policy and protocol that very few of their shelved products end up in landfill.
Despite these policies, their dumpsters still often overflow with edible produce according to members of a popular Melbourne-based food rescuing Facebook group.
“It’s amazing how much good stuff they will throw out if they get a new delivery”, writes Lozzie.
This group of dedicated freegans has recently swelled to over one thousand members and shares anecdotes, tips, recipes and photos boasting their recent hauls. The photographic evidence of edible supermarket waste documented on this page alone is the clearest example that relying on companies to lead green-policy change simply isn’t working.
Many members of the group claim to have chosen to become freegans because of a political motivation: a desire to reduce the negative impacts of our system of mass consumption on the environment.
WATCH: Joey and his sharehouse as they do their bit to limit household expenses and society’s waste.
One member, Grace, feels she is contributing to the greater good every time she rescues and redistributes usable food from going to landfill.
“As for dollars being my vote, I still have to purchase things from time to time. But I’m far more capable of making more responsible and informed decisions on the products I purchase and I can afford better quality”, she wrote.
Another member, Jacob, calls himself a ‘meagan’. Whereas the term ‘freegan’ is coined from a mash-up of ‘free’ and ‘vegan’, he and his wife also rescue meat and dairy from supermarket bins.
“I was a freegan, but soon after became a meagan as I was seeing how nice the cuts of meat were (that) I was taking home to feed my dog”, he said.
“Being on average it takes thirteen pounds of corn to grow one pound of meat it seemed extremely wasteful to discard (it).”
Jacob and his family employ their own stringent set of safety checklists for liberating meat from bins, and claim to have never once gotten sick from eating dumpster produce.
They are far from the typical mental image most have of people who dive into bins for food.
Jacob, a social justice entrepreneur, started a soup kitchen called Stone Soup, and his wife is an actor on the popular television show, Wentworth.
“I took my wife to Hallam Aldi on our first date. Initially she was skeptical, but ten minutes in she was hooked.”
Now married and with young children, he hopes to one day pass the food rescuing baton on to the next generation.
“I do picture my son going diving (solo) one day. We often do it on our way home from church on Sunday nights.”
Other members of the Facebook co-op admit to dumpster diving being their ‘zero-fee’ health insurance policy. Without the fresh fruit and vegetables they rescue, they simply couldn’t afford the recommended two and five a day.
Over twenty per cent of Victorians quote the high cost of food to be a major deterrent in getting the quality and variety of food they need for a healthy diet, according to a 2012 food insecurity study.
ABS statistics from a 2015 study reveal that a mere 6 percent of Victorians ate the recommended daily amount of vegetables.
You would be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t aware of the mounting economic pressures faced by many Australians today. In this financial climate, the act of shopping in bins for groceries—saving both the environment and a couple of ‘pineapples’ in your wallet on your daily two and five—is starting to look like the sensible choice to a growing number of Melbournians.
Or as Louie says, “As a dumpster diver, I can have my smashed avo, and eat it too.”
Surnames omitted for legal reasons
Related: Infographic on Australian Household Food Waste provided by Foodwise
Do Something About Food Waste infographic by lunchalot