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Bounty in the bins: The dumpster divers rescuing food

Dumpster diver Janie wades through a surface layer of cabbage leaves to find the good stuff.

Kate Richards gets a taste of dumpster diving and a food-rescue vegetarian feast.

The first time I go to Dive N Dine, a collaborative fortnightly dinner where food is saved from supermarket bins and made into a three-course vegetarian feast, the organisers have been busted on their Monday night scavenge.

The offers quickly pour in: “I can bring some rice.” “I have rosemary.” “I’ll bring coconut milk but I’ve only got two cans…” “No worries, I’ve got the other!” When we arrive in a two-car convoy at 6pm to organiser Tom’s Auckland flat, there’s a cardamom- and ginger-laced vegetable curry bubbling away on the stove, pineapple juice being passed round, and pineapple sorbet – made using the flesh discarded after juicing – about to go into the freezer.

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In the flat’s cramped, 70s-style kitchen, various bearded, secondhand clothes-wearing hipster types are pitching in with the entree, grabbing vegetables and expensive bread out of two commercial-looking plastic baskets in the centre of the room to make “dumpster bruschetta”. Tom later explains the event attracts people on the fringe of normality. “The disenchanted, the artists...” he says.

There’s fruit, too, mountains of it: some 15 pineapple halves, bags of unopened mandarins (each with only a single squashed one), bananas, apples – all of it imperfect-looking but entirely edible. Throughout the night, those who don’t cook help with other tasks: handing out plates of food, washing up, drying. Tom burns a sage stick as we all participate in a guided group meditation, while sitting in a circle on the lounge floor, our eyes closed and holding hands. On another visit, strangers trade hugs like currency, and there’s an impromptu clothes swap followed by a talk on sustainable living. The sense of commune-ish community is palpable.

This isn’t even a particularly substantial haul of discarded food, Tom tells me as we eat. “We used to take way too much and end up wasting things ourselves, so now we take less,” he says.

But faced with the amount of food that’s come from just one bin outside one supermarket in one city, it’s sobering to think about what the divers left behind – inevitably destined for landfill.

Pickings from the bin raid include an array of imperfect-looking but entirely edible fruits and veggies. 

Tom and his partner in crime, Janie, never take meat, for example, despite often finding it. At a specialist food market, they once found a whole box of in-date Angus beef patties, which they reckoned was worth about $500, but their strict vegetarianism dictated they leave it there.

“I eat lots of dairy and things that I wouldn’t usually eat, but never meat,” says Tom. “I have no desire to eat it. Plus there’s a risk of getting sick and you don’t get that with [scavenged] veg.”

Food-waste charity Love Food Hate Waste, which launched in the UK in 2007, says a third of food produced globally is wasted every year; at the same time, UN research says one in nine people doesn’t have enough to eat.

Tom and his two fellow “divers” don’t need to eat out of supermarket bins. Two are students and one a cafe worker; they have regular incomes, be that salary or student allowance, and they come from middle-class families. When diving, they wear plain clothes (not the shady black outfits I was expecting) and aren’t embarrassed about what they’re doing or scared of being caught. In legal terms, dumpster diving is considered trespass and theft. Tom’s response: “It’s criminal throwing away all this food.”

While he’s the first to admit he’s stingy – saying he’s spent almost nothing on groceries since starting to dive in February this year – Dive N Dine is as much a social-justice mission as it is a money-saving exercise. However, watching Tom and Janie elbow-deep in bins at a local supermarket recovering fistfuls of medjool dates, loose macadamias and avocados with obvious delight, it’s clear to me that the thrill of finding more expensive items certainly isn’t lost on them, either. They tell me the best haul they’ve had included an entire carton of premium coconut yoghurt, which retails at around $7 a jar.

For someone living off $120 a week after rent and who barely spends a cent on anything other than gigs and petrol, Tom is surprisingly in touch with what things cost. When I ask how much he thinks the group has saved from bins since they started Dive N Dine, he says: “I think $5000 would be a nice clean figure. Sometimes when we were getting a shit-load of stuff because it was fun and we liked getting it, we’d save around $500 worth of food in one night.”

 Tom and fellow student Janie are studying social work. He’s in his final semester at Unitec; she’s in her first year of a master’s at the University of Auckland. Both see these dinners, and dumpster diving, as an extension of their studies.

“It started because winter is a time when people find it hard to get out and be social,” explains Tom. “A few of my friends have moved away and my girlfriend is spending some time overseas, so I wanted to create a community of friends that had a reason to get together regularly.” For him, Dive N Dine constitutes community development, a sector of social work he’s particularly interested in, because the event is about bringing people together, as well as preventing food waste.

It’s surprising to hear the dinners explained like this. An awkward host, Tom is shy when people initially arrive at his house, darting in and out of the kitchen to check on things, despite all the prep being done and the meal cooking itself. He says he’d struggle to attend a dinner like Dive N Dine if he wasn’t hosting it, and it’s obvious the invitees are part of his inner circle.

I wanted to go diving with Tom and Janie, to see first-hand what’s in the bins at their local hot-spots. So on a particularly cold Monday evening, we arrange to meet at 11pm, down the road from an Auckland supermarket. In typically relaxed fashion, they show up at 11.30pm, almost amused I’m on time. But things quickly turn serious as photographer Rebekah and I take a seat in the back of Janie’s stationwagon for a pre-dive briefing. “Don’t get any photos of the signs,” Tom says, “and we need to be quiet when we’re in there.” Rebekah is keen for them to take things slower than usual so we can capture the action, but they can’t promise they will, clearly worried about losing the spoils.

The not-so-spoiled spoils of one supermarket scavenge.

The gates to the back of the supermarket used to be open, so the pair were able to walk in and take what they wanted. Tonight, they’re locked – Tom assumes as a response to him being caught twice at this location – and we have to roll underneath low wire bars on the cold tarmac to get in, then pass plastic bins and cameras over the fence. Once inside, they quickly get to work on the green produce bins. “You ain’t working with no amateurs, lady,” says Janie, as she wades through a surface layer of cabbage leaves and cauliflower trimmings to uncover the good stuff.

 The faint shuffles of late-shift workers can be heard from behind the metal roller-door right next to where we’re scavenging. I feel unnerved by both the sounds and overhead security cameras, but Tom and Janie are unperturbed. As the empty boxes we came in with begin to fill with food, I can’t help but feel Tom has a point – it seems criminal that this much food should be thrown away. I want to know why. “Macadamias, sweet!” yells Janie, who can hardly believe her luck. The bin thieves gather their final items and we head to another nearby food store where we’re told there will be plenty of bread and pastries.

Much has been made lately of foodbank and food-rescue groups such as Auckland, Dunedin, Hawke’s Bay and soon-to-be Queenstown’s KiwiHarvest, and Wellington’s Kaibosh, which partner with supermarkets to divert food from landfill and redistribute it to those in need. Foodstuffs and Progressive supermarkets also work with charities such as the Salvation Army and Fair Food NZ to give non-perishable food parcels to the needy. In 2017, Countdown donated more than $2 million worth of food scraps to farmers. While there are systems in place to minimise the amount of food thrown away, Tom and Janie still find a lot that’s edible. Tom assumes the reason for this is issues around hygiene and company liability.

A statement from Antoinette Laird, head of external relations at Foodstuffs New Zealand (Pak’nSave, New World and Four Square) confirms this. “We appreciate some people see dumpster diving as a way of accessing free food,” she writes. “While we acknowledge some items may still be edible, there are significant health risks associated with such an activity and we strongly recommend against it.”

Progressive spokesperson Kate Porter (Countdown) takes a similar stance. “There are many reasons why food has to be thrown out,” she says. “The first is food safety; if a product has accidentally ended up on the floor, or if it’s been recalled for any reason, we cannot donate this. While a product may look okay on the surface, food safety may have been compromised.”

Tom is mild-mannered, but it’s obvious the wastage upsets him. He often finds compost, rubbish and recycling all mixed up. “The epitome of it all was finding a compost bin filled with plastic-wrapped bread,” he says, “The supermarkets have been quick to jump on the plastic-free thing, but if you look in their bins, you do wonder if they actually care about the environment. I’ve put stuff in the right bins for them.”

Porter wants to know if any of those offending stores are theirs. She says they publicly report their waste and recycling volumes on their website. “If a store isn’t following our comprehensive processes, we’d like to be able to investigate so we can fix it.”

Waste is everyone’s problem, of course. Porter makes the point that the best way for customers to reduce food waste is to use and consume everything they buy. Most of us are guilty of throwing away wilting vegetables, odd ends of cheese, stale bread and more, but there are ways to repurpose these to ensure that – like the dumpster divers’ – our environmental footprint is a light one.

Freeze vegetables as they start to brown or go soft – when you have enough, boil with water and plenty of salt to make stock. Parmesan rinds are great for adding flavour to pasta sauces, and stale bread can be used in myriad ways: for the Italian tomato-and-bread salad panzanella, as breadcrumbs, or croutons on soup.

Take a leaf out of eco-warrior Tom’s book and just think of it as dumpster diving in your own fridge.

This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of North & South.