Being the ever frugal student I frequently apply the look/sniff/prod/lick test to food that may have past its ‘use by’ date. So far I’ve found that this works fine, and as a result, I have never yet given myself food poisoning. However, this is not the case for supermarkets and other food retailers, who have to abide by legislation and cannot sell food that has passed its ‘use by’ date. This results in supermarkets throwing away 1.6 million tonnes of food per year. It’s not just supermarkets either; restaurants create an estimated 600,000 tons of food waste per annum. Although this food is past it’s ‘use by’ date, more often than not it’s still perfectly edible.
In some cases the ‘use by’ date is an artificial creation, dictated by legislation rather than reality. Cheese is a classic example where the actual nature of the product and its long (albeit smelly) shelf-life is not reflected in legislative demands for a precise date.
Cue freegans, who go ‘bin diving’ in supermarkets’ rubbish for their food, since they’ve realised that they can pretty much eat for free (if they don’t mind a little bin juice). It’s not just food that freegans scavenge either – they’re not fussy and will go for whatever they can get their eco-hands on, including squatting in empty housing. Hard-core freegans even go ‘table diving’, where they wait outside restaurants for cooked food that is about to be thrown out. For obvious reasons freegans don’t spend much on living costs, so they try to work as little as possible so that they can use their time to “make the world a better place”, instead spending their time giving and receiving, although what they have to give when they ‘scavenge’ is questionable.
Many freegans moved into freeganism when times were hard; they lacked money and so turned to bins for food. Frequently this happened when they were students and found that their inadequate loan just didn’t stretch. For example, whilst the rest of us opt for Sainsbury’s Basics or Tesco Value, Harry Peters* doing Environmental Studies (no, really!) at Edinburgh describes himself as “… one of those students who looks to save as much money as possible”, and scrimps and saves by ‘bin diving’. Furthermore with the enormous increase of tuition fees set to come into play in 2012, it looks like many more may follow his lead.
However, as freegans are keen to point out, being a freegan isn’t just about ‘bin diving’; they believe in an anti-consumerist and anti-materialistic lifestyle, hoping that their way of life will reduce wastage, and that ultimately we will not need to live in a society governed by money. Communism for hippies then!
This all sounds well and good, and it’s very admirable of freegans to try to live an anti-materialistic lifestyle, but no-one seems to have pointed out to them how fatally flawed freeganism is. Whilst being anti-materialistic and anti-capitalist and believing in sharing wealth (well, so would I if I didn’t work), they need to live in a capitalist and materialistic society for freeganism to work. If we didn’t produce so much wastage, then they’d be a bit stuck for stuff to live off and have to get jobs, thus fuelling the economy they so hate. Furthermore, they concede that their aim of creating a society in which a monetary system does not force people to buy or do things might not actually work, and that perhaps money is an inevitability. So we’d be back to where we started.
Whilst something needs to be done about the amount of wastage we generate (an area the size of Warwick is now landfill), eating leftovers out of bins is not going to feasibly solve this problem. A long term solution is required. We need to rethink what we buy, since the average household throws away a quarter of the food it buys, and supermarkets throw away an obscene amount. Maybe freegans could use their time allotted to ‘giving back’ to work on the solution to this. For example, they could pressure retailers to dedicate their unused goods to charities or the homeless. A good example of this is Pret A Manger, which distributes its leftover food to the homeless at the end of every working day. What’s stopping other companies doing the same?
If freegans really do just want free stuff, they could log onto a computer – scavenged or otherwise – and use the wireless they’re probably thieving, and visit Free UK, a website which really does give stuff away for free. After a bit of searching you can find some pretty good give-aways. Or they could just do what those of us without the gall to go bin diving do, and head to the supermarkets late at night to buy the clearance food that’s going to be past it’s ‘use by’ date the next day.