Waste Not Want Not

Words by Hannah White

There’s something rotten in the state of Britain’s dustbins – too much food wastage and disregard for what we throw away.
Enter Tristram Stuart, whose unique protest takes food for thought to whole new level.

During the final hours of a muddy, hedonistic weekend at Glastonbury I bumped into an old friend. It was Sunday afternoon and I was tired of partying, hungry, and skint – having spent all my money at the cider bus. Tristram took a barely touched plate of noodles from the top of a nearby rubbish bin and offered it to me. I couldn’t hide my disgust. “Ugh, you’re not going to eat that are you?” I said. “Why not?” he replied, “there’s nothing wrong with it.”

I am now older, sober and more conventional, yet the principle of ‘freeganism’ – sourcing and eating food that would otherwise go to waste – has lost none of its appeal.

Now most of the food Tristram collects is “untouched, before its sell-by date, sealed by multiple layers of packaging, and contained in bin-bags that contain nothing but fresh food.” For him, campaigning about the excessive waste of food and its environmental impact has become a part-time occupation, while the individual practice of freeganism a vocation.

The approaching festive season signifies a time of over consumption, excess and consequently waste – and it’s not just Christmas that exemplifies our throwaway culture. Proportionally, Britain wastes more food than any other nation. Tentative estimates suggest that we throw away 30-40% of food produced and retailed, costing us something in the region of £8 billion to £16 billion a year.

And it’s not just retailers who are responsible for dumping edible food due to over-cautious sell-by dates. Farmers frequently dispose of blemished, outsized or surplus fruit or vegetables due to rigid contracts with food processors and retailers. Even at home, each British family is responsible for throwing away 2.7kg (6lb) of food per person per week.

As Tristram points out, the food industry not only impacts upon the environment during the disposal of food but also through its manufacture. Harmful emissions are created in the processing of food, while methane is the bi-product of food waste decomposing in landfill sites. The good news is that the dumping of food will lessen when higher landfill tax is introduced and stricter EU legislations are implemented as a result of the imminent landfill crisis. Eventually for the larger food producers and retailers it will become more economical to distribute or recycle food rather than throw it away.

Freeganism does not significantly reduce waste and is not in any way a solution to the food waste problem, but the act of rifling around in wheelie-bins does draw attention to the fact that perfectly good food is being thrown away. Tristram claims that it simply shouldn’t be possible for somebody like himself, who can afford to buy food, to go out onto the streets and survive on the food he finds being wasted by retailers. His point is that not only are insane quantities of food being thrown away, but that food could be distributed, through charities to people who need it.

“FareShare is a charity which provides a viable, practical and necessary utilisation of food that would otherwise needlessly end up in landfill sites contributing to global warming,” he explains. “In Britain there are roughly four million people suffering from food poverty and one in seven pensioners are at risk from malnutrition. Food manufacturers give FareShare safe food that cannot reach retailers before its sell-by date.” Once they have the food the charity can cook it and distribute it to homeless and vulnerable people in the community and as a result they can provide 12,000 meals a day. However, FareShare is keen to point out that more could be done and that obviously with higher numbers of food donations the number of people they could feed would greatly increase.

So if you wanted to protest about food wastage by going freegan, where are the best places to get food? Well, apparently every single food outlet, supermarket, vegetable market, fast-food restaurant, and bakers – in fact anywhere you see food for sale, will waste a certain percentage of their stock. “There is no need to unduly risk your health,” says Tristram about practising freeganism, “retailers throw away perfectly good packaged food in sealed plastic bags”. All you need to do is find out the days and times food is thrown away. (Remember though, before you go diving round the back of supermarkets it is better to forage with the cooperation of the retailer). So to what extent is Tristram able to live as a freegan? “I get most of my food from what retailers would otherwise send to landfill sites,” he says. “I don’t object to buying food, I object to wasting it. I’m perfectly happy to buy something, but most of the food I eat I find.”

Tristram’s approach to protesting about food wastage is definitely an acquired taste, but it can’t be denied that making a stand in such a personal – and for many, unfathomable – way (would you root through a supermarket’s wheelies for your tea?) takes gumption and courage of conviction. Tristram is driven to highlight the problem in our throwaway society on a domestic, retail and industrial level and although resolution is a long way off, practicing freeganism certainly proves that it’s far too easy in this country to live hand to mouth. Literally.

Tristram’s tips to reduce waste
1. Don’t buy more than you need and eat what you do buy.
2. Treat sell-by dates with a healthy degree of scepticism.
3. Reuse your leftovers for lunch or freeze up any extra
servings rather than showing them the bin.
4. Volunteer for organisations like FareShare or set up your own redistribution organisation.