The remains of the day

5 October 2007

 “When we’re in you don’t talk, you don’t make a noise. We are in and out in fifteen minutes. Don’t fuck up.” And so began my first foray into freeganism. Dressed in dark clothes and standing round the corner from a major supermarket’s bins I felt halfway between a truffle boar and Steve McQueen, save for a motorbike. Like Nigella gone ethical; Martha Stewart turned dirty or Oscar the Grouch gone gourmet.

It had started to drizzle with a menace that perfectly suited the task ahead and the moon had disappeared behind barbed wire. In an Agatha Christie novel it would be about now that we’d all start looking at our watches and falling overboard. I hoped the smell in the air was just the bins and not the heady scent of adrenaline-loosened bowels. Perhaps the truffle boar analogy was proving more accurate than I had feared.

Pink, SPS student and chief forager, finished her instructions and lead the way forward, scuttling along the wall, keeping to the shadows and furtively peering round her. The night was as still as a corpse in a freezer cabinet. Somewhere a car started. Blue coughed. I swallowed nervously. Then, before you could say “hygiene risk”, Pink had shot out of sight and we were in, bins open, arms sweeping through, noses held. Rucksacks and plastic bags began to fill. I opened one wheelie bin and poked about inside, most of it was unrecognisable, dark and dangerous. I found some falafel. Not just falafel; completely free falafel.

Later Pink explained “its about Britain’s waste culture – it’s about the people that go hungry because supermarkets’ profit targets stop us eating food that’s still fine. Not to mention all the packaging, the time spent making it, the miles it has travelled. This is a form of conservation; we have to learn how to live off the produce of the earth more efficiently.”

I had found freedom falafel. I rejected some freedom frankfurters however; aged meat products don’t have the same liberating properties. Nevertheless the stuff in the bins could have filled Jamie Oliver’s wet dreams – sealed, good quality fare, plenty of it nearing its ‘display by’ rather than ‘eat by’ dates. We would be eating substantially better than my usual Sainsbury’s basics fodder.

By the time we left the haul had spilled over into about three plastic bags: on this occasion the hunter gatherers had been successful, the tribe would eat tonight. We strolled back munching on some lurid pink salvaged biscuits and looking forward to the feast.

I asked Blue about the people who couldn’t afford to eat in this country because supermarkets lost business to freegans and had to hike prices. “We don’t do it that much, there’s only a few people I know of, and for some stuff you have to buy it. We make it unprofitable for supermarkets to throw stuff out, if they want to stop us they just have to buy more realistically.”

Since the mid 1990s freegans have been trying to live, according to their website, with “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources”. Beliefs differ – some are vegan, some eat meat only if it would otherwise go to waste, but all believe that purchasing food contributes to a materialist, competitive and greedy capitalist economy. Most entertainingly the freegans’ Wikipedia article signs off with: “this article may contain spam”. And gone off spam at that.

Each supermarket has a different policy on their bins. Most offer food to staff and then send it to charities like FareShare who distribute food to the homeless (Asda and Morrisons are the shameful exceptions), but FareShare can only accept own brand food with 24hrs left before going off. Tesco keep their bins locked, but I am assured that Marks and Spencers is the place to go for a bourgeois binge thanks to unlocked bins and excellent food. Meat, fish and eggs must be destroyed or made unfit for consumption, but few supermarkets seem to follow through with this, M&S do not even stretch to a reduced bin.

And yet, and yet, the real villains of the piece are us. Brits chuck away 40% of all food they buy. The wholemeal pittas that end their days at the back of a cupboard, the yoghurt that walks itself to the bin, the milk that pops its clogs in an orgy of repulsive lumpiness – adding up like so many student misdemeanors to create a waste problem greater than the supermarkets’ combined. As Granny always said: “will you sodding well eat it?”

 “When we’re in you don’t talk, you don’t make a noise. We are in and out in fifteen minutes. Don’t fuck up.” And so began my first foray into freeganism. Dressed in dark clothes and standing round the corner from a major supermarket’s bins I felt halfway between a truffle boar and Steve McQueen, save for a motorbike. Like Nigella gone ethical; Martha Stewart turned dirty or Oscar the Grouch gone gourmet.

It had started to drizzle with a menace that perfectly suited the task ahead and the moon had disappeared behind barbed wire. In an Agatha Christie novel it would be about now that we’d all start looking at our watches and falling overboard. I hoped the smell in the air was just the bins and not the heady scent of adrenaline-loosened bowels. Perhaps the truffle boar analogy was proving more accurate than I had feared.

Pink, SPS student and chief forager, finished her instructions and lead the way forward, scuttling along the wall, keeping to the shadows and furtively peering round her. The night was as still as a corpse in a freezer cabinet. Somewhere a car started. Blue coughed. I swallowed nervously. Then, before you could say “hygiene risk”, Pink had shot out of sight and we were in, bins open, arms sweeping through, noses held. Rucksacks and plastic bags began to fill. I opened one wheelie bin and poked about inside, most of it was unrecognisable, dark and dangerous. I found some falafel. Not just falafel; completely free falafel.

Later Pink explained “its about Britain’s waste culture – it’s about the people that go hungry because supermarkets’ profit targets stop us eating food that’s still fine. Not to mention all the packaging, the time spent making it, the miles it has travelled. This is a form of conservation; we have to learn how to live off the produce of the earth more efficiently.”

I had found freedom falafel. I rejected some freedom frankfurters however; aged meat products don’t have the same liberating properties. Nevertheless the stuff in the bins could have filled Jamie Oliver’s wet dreams – sealed, good quality fare, plenty of it nearing its ‘display by’ rather than ‘eat by’ dates. We would be eating substantially better than my usual Sainsbury’s basics fodder.

By the time we left the haul had spilled over into about three plastic bags: on this occasion the hunter gatherers had been successful, the tribe would eat tonight. We strolled back munching on some lurid pink salvaged biscuits and looking forward to the feast.

I asked Blue about the people who couldn’t afford to eat in this country because supermarkets lost business to freegans and had to hike prices. “We don’t do it that much, there’s only a few people I know of, and for some stuff you have to buy it. We make it unprofitable for supermarkets to throw stuff out, if they want to stop us they just have to buy more realistically.”

Since the mid 1990s freegans have been trying to live, according to their website, with “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources”. Beliefs differ – some are vegan, some eat meat only if it would otherwise go to waste, but all believe that purchasing food contributes to a materialist, competitive and greedy capitalist economy. Most entertainingly the freegans’ Wikipedia article signs off with: “this article may contain spam”. And gone off spam at that.

Each supermarket has a different policy on their bins. Most offer food to staff and then send it to charities like FareShare who distribute food to the homeless (Asda and Morrisons are the shameful exceptions), but FareShare can only accept own brand food with 24hrs left before going off. Tesco keep their bins locked, but I am assured that Marks and Spencers is the place to go for a bourgeois binge thanks to unlocked bins and excellent food. Meat, fish and eggs must be destroyed or made unfit for consumption, but few supermarkets seem to follow through with this, M&S do not even stretch to a reduced bin.

And yet, and yet, the real villains of the piece are us. Brits chuck away 40% of all food they buy. The wholemeal pittas that end their days at the back of a cupboard, the yoghurt that walks itself to the bin, the milk that pops its clogs in an orgy of repulsive lumpiness – adding up like so many student misdemeanors to create a waste problem greater than the supermarkets’ combined. As Granny always said: “will you sodding well eat it?”