What I learned from a year of dumpster diving in Australia

“She’s been stealin’!” That’s what my house mate Derek would playfully yell out every evening when I came home with my rucksack (that’s “backpack” in Australian) bursting at the seams. Passing by the bins of the three grocery stores that were on my bicycle commute home from work was, by this time, a daily habit. I rarely came home empty handed.

Like all good college kids doing environmental studies, I’d gone dumpster diving (or “skip dipping” as I’d seen it named in one Australian blog) a couple of times before, but it had been more about making a direct connection with that aspect of our broken global food system than to take on a new lifestyle element. The lessons about food waste that this early dumpster diving experience gave me absolutely influenced my choices as a consumer, but that’s about as far as things went. Work, travel and life brought me around the world from Canada to Japan, and then to Australia. Then, one day in Melbourne at the maker-space where my partner and I were building our campervan, Emily, the warehouse caretaker, bombarded my workspace with chocolates. “It’s Easter at the bins!” she cried as sachets of Maltesers, whole chocolate bunnies still in their boxes, and a range of other colourfully packaged goodies tumbled like confetti around me.

By the time that my partner and I were travelling along Australia’s famous coastline a few weeks later, “Let’s check the bins before we go in” had become a mantra as we would pull up to supermarkets. Suddenly, we weren’t paying AUD$9 (~USD $7) per kilo of red capsicum and we never bought eggs, milk or bread. Once we moved to Brisbane, we spent a couple of weeks exploring a few bins regularly to see if they consistently had a good selection available and found our ‘regulars’. Here are a few lessons I learned from my year of dumpster diving in Australia:

1. It’s hard to find bad food

Never mind food that’s actually gone bad, let’s talk about food that’s bad for your health (a.k.a. the cheap stuff) — it is rarely in the bins. Processed foods like sodas or snacks? Scarcely, if ever. Fruits and vegetables? Almost always. This is the stuff that gets immediately chucked if it’s got a bruise, is too ripe or is a bit disfigured — or, is still perfectly fine, but the newest shipment has arrived so the old stuff gets taken off the shelves. Truly, we never brought home anything that had actually gone bad, and we brought home a lot.

This brings me to my next point:

2. People are stupid

Here is a selection of our best finds demonstrating this point:

  • A perfectly clean and intact box of six jars of caviar. Why? The best before date was the day before. I have a seriously hard time believing that no one would have bought this item if the store had marked it at a discount in the days before this date. Because, caviar!
Together with other goodies from ‘the caviar haul’
  • More red peppers than we could have ever known what to do with, never mind taken with us. There was absolutely nothing wrong with any of them. I can’t fathom a reason to justify throwing so much good (and expensive!) fresh food away, but all I can think is that a new truckload had been delivered so what was already on the shelves “had” to go.
  • Two boxes full of vanilla ice cream tubs (probably 15 tubs of ice cream per box). Woe were we to be travelling in a van and thus without a freezer, and without friends to whom we could deliver such a treasure! The boxes had clearly been dropped during unloading from the truck, and one tub in the bottom corner of each box had burst. While each broken tub had made a mess, all of the other tubs were perfectly sealed and none near the tops of the boxes were dirty at all. An easy sort and rinse job. Instead, all of them were thrown out.
  • A case of beer. One bottle had broken so they threw the whole set away. Sacrilege!

3. When it rains, it pours

Similar to the red capsicum and ice cream story from above, more often than not, when you find one tomato, there are a dozen more right under it. This was consistently the case for bread, eggs, and milk. Either it’s a case of best before dates or one item in a case breaking, and so the whole set is thrown away. We didn’t buy any of these three staples for most of the year. One of our more luxurious finds of this category was passion fruit — about 40, all perfectly intact and ripe — which we made cordial with; it was excellent paired with vodka.

The UK alone wastes almost 900,000 tonnes of bread every year — around 24 million slices every day. (via @ToastAle)

4. This isn’t just food waste

We didn’t buy shampoo or laundry detergent for nine months (you’ll see some lurking in the photos above). Cracked caps were usually the cause for these items’ presence in the bins, even if they still closed perfectly fine — it was all aesthetic issues. We also found brand new clothes and household items following the end of promotion periods at stores that have sales like these. This was the stuff that hurt our hearts a lot. Fine, not everyone wants to bring home over-ripe bananas, but how anyone can justify throwing away brand new children’s clothing or kitchen items in a country (and a world) with serious socio-economic disparity, famine, and a significant refugee resettlement crisis is absolutely unacceptable.

5. I’d rather open the lid to a bin and find nothing at all

There is a serious thrill to lifting a lid, looking inside a bin, and realising that you’re about to bring home chocolate bars, avocados, a child’s weight of butternut squash, loaves of bread fresh from that morning, and everything you’d need for a week’s worth of fruit salad — all for free. There is also a very sombre shadow once it sinks in that this is one grocery store in one neighbourhood of one city in one of the most developed countries in the world. So much is wasted that shouldn’t be, and so many people go hungry that needn’t. If our global and “modern” food system wasn’t so disjointed, this injustice wouldn’t be hiding behind every grocery and corner store in countries like Australia, Canada, and plenty more. As far as I’m concerned, it mustn’t any longer.

Please keep the conversation about food waste going to help bring change to how your local grocery stores and markets approach food excess and the question of waste. The easiest places to start donation programmes are with churches and community centres that have meal programmes for the underprivileged, the homeless, and refugees.

To accompany the above, I’ll share some best-practices for dumpster diving that we followed. I’ll add that my partner and I never got sick from any of the food we ate, nor did anyone we shared our food with.

  • Don’t leave a mess at the bins and don’t take more than what you can realistically eat /use. This helps ensure that businesses don’t have another reason to lock their bins, while also leaving enough for the next skip dipper without making it difficult for them to find things.
  • Thoroughly wash everything you bring home with warm soapy water. You don’t know what else was in the bin earlier that day or earlier that week.
  • For foods like bread that come in packaging that is hard to clean without risking water getting in and causing damage, select the cleanest package(s) to take and repackage the food into clean sandwich bags as soon as you get home. When in doubt, leave it behind.
  • Don’t take any dairy or meat products without first checking the expiry date (sometimes things are in the bin for a good reason) and don’t take any of these if they aren’t cold. Our rule was, “If I had bought this in the store, put it in my bag, taken a 20 minute bicycle ride home in the middle of a summer day, and then taken it out of my bag when I got home, would it be at least this cold?” Again, when in doubt, leave it behind. If you bring meat home, cook all of it immediately and freeze whatever you can’t eat that day.
Meat can be a scary topic when it comes in the same sentence as “from the bin”, but if you’re careful, smart, and find a good recipe once you’re back home, you can taste wonders that you might not otherwise have ever enjoyed.
  • If you’re going to offer food you’ve gotten from the bins to friends and family, you have a decision to make. We chose to tell them where the food had come from in order to let them make an informed choice. Others argue that the food they’re serving is safe (or else why would they serve it?), so there’s no need to announce where it came from. By sharing the food’s source, we used the opportunity to explain why we dumpster dive, what we’ve seen and learned, and to keep the conversation about food waste and food security going.

One day, Derek said to me, “You should really stop taking food out of the bins, mate.” Without hesitating, I responded, “Why would I give up doing something that helps diminish food waste and permits me to eat the healthiest food available for free?” This led to a very interesting conversation with my partner about not only how much money we had been saving on groceries and the small impact we were making to alleviate food waste, but also how much healthier we had been eating. By dumpster diving, we had been consuming fruits, veggies, cuts of meat, and artisanal breads that we would have never bought on our budget. Safe and happy skip dipping, mates!

Me in the Gold Coast, washing our big bucket (found in a bin) full of fruits and veggies (from a bin), in my brand new pencil skirt and sweater (found in their original sealed packaging… in a bin)