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‘Let them eat bin cake’: The food-waste warriors dumpster diving for their supper

All the produce at the party (except for the wine) had been sourced from a rubbish skip.

“The cakes were all pre-made. We just lifted them up out of the bin and heated up the pies,” Ms Clifforth said.

Ms Clifforth and Mr Watson are dumpster divers, part of a subculture of environmentalists who glean their food from skips outside supermarkets, cafes and bakeries in a bid to reduce the amount of edible food that ends up in landfill.

The couple stockpiled for a week before the party. “It was a week of going out (dumpster diving) pretty much every night,” Mr Watson says. “It definitely helps being where we are, for sure, lots of really nice bakeries and patisseries (in Carlton).”

The party was part celebration – the couple was born on the same date – part enviro-political statement.

“The war on waste is so important because we are obviously producing too much,” Ms Clifforth says.

“(Dumpster diving) has ricocheted across our friendship group and become more normalised and accepted. It is a different perspective on how much food gets wasted and different accessibility to food.”

The dumpster haul at the Let Them Eat Bin Cake party.

The dumpster haul at the Let Them Eat Bin Cake party.

An estimated 7.3 million tonnes of food is wasted in Australia each year, according to the National Food Baseline report, an average of nearly 300 kilograms per person.

Food waste is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, all around Australia there are people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. “In the last 12 months, more than 4 million Australians (18 per cent of the population) have been in a situation where they have run out of food and have been unable to buy more,” according to the 2018 Foodbank Hunger report.

In a study on green consumption practices, Swinburne University lecturer Chamila Perera interviewed 21 young dumpster divers from Melbourne.

She identified three subcultures – those who dive for food to eat, those who distribute it to the homeless and those who share it at environmental activist events.

Dr Perera says the motivation was often a protest against wasteful practices and a desire to reduce consumption rather than financial hardship.

“When I interviewed them I found a sense of achievement and accomplishment,” she says.

Global food waste warrior Ronni Kahn started Australia’s leading food rescue organisation OzHarvest in 2004 with one of the – now iconic – yellow vans in Sydney.

Fifteen years later OzHarvest rescues food from 3700 food donors, about 70 per cent of which is from supermarkets.

Dumpster diving is often a protest against wasteful consumerism.

Dumpster diving is often a protest against wasteful consumerism.

Ms Kahn says there has been huge improvements in food outlets reducing waste in the past few years.

“We have been working with Woolworths for 10 years and the amount of food and number of stores we collect from is growing all the time as they work towards their goal of zero waste to landfill,” she says.

Woolworths says it has provided more than 10 million meals in the past year to Australians in need through OzHarvest, FoodBank and FareShare.

In 2018-2019 Coles says it donated the equivalent of almost 25 million meals. Last year the supermarket chain opened its first “no waste” store in Melbourne’s Surrey Hills, which donates unsold edible food to SecondBite and has an ORCA food digester, which treats inedible food waste and then sends it to a local wastewater treatment plant.

OzHarvest chief executive Ronni Kahn.

OzHarvest chief executive Ronni Kahn.Credit:Jessica Hromas

But Ms Kahn says dumpster diving is a sad reflection that good food is still going to waste.

“Whilst OzHarvest would rather rescue edible food and deliver it safely to people who need it most, we understand why some people choose to do this,” she says.

“Whilst filming for the documentary Food Fighter I experienced dumpster diving first hand and was shocked at how much perfectly edible food was in the bin.”

There are more than 5000 members of the Facebook page The Melbourne Freegan Co-Op (a portmanteau of free and vegan, Freegans limit participation in the conventional economy and minimise their consumption of resources).

Fresh produce rescued from a dumpster.

Fresh produce rescued from a dumpster.

Members of the group post photos, update a Google map with lucrative dive locations, provide updates of any food recalls and share their hauls with each other.

The group also suggests dive etiquette: don’t make a mess, share hauls with other divers that arrive, don’t damage property, close bins when you leave.

“If approached by security/workers be friendly and polite and ask them if it is OK that you finish up; don’t just assume that they will want you to leave, however, respect their wishes if they do,” the Freegan Facebook page says.

Whereas diving is illegal in some countries, such as Germany and New Zealand, in Australia the law is murkier.

Food waste researcher Dianne McGrath once spent a week eating the scraps from diners' plates.

Food waste researcher Dianne McGrath once spent a week eating the scraps from diners’ plates.Credit:Luis Ascui

“It is a bit of a grey area. There isn’t any law that expressly forbids dumpster diving, but people could be fined for trespass or theft,” says food waste researcher Dianne McGrath.

Supermarkets tend to discourage dumpster diving. Aldi, which donates to OzHarvest, Foodbank and SecondBite, says sometimes it disposes of products considered a high risk, such as meat and eggs.

“First and foremost, our priority is the safety of the public,” says an Aldi spokesperson. “We do not condone dumpster diving for this reason. As a security measure, many of our stores lock their bins.”

When she lived in Melbourne’s CBD Ms McGrath used to dumpster dive and distribute the produce to the homeless. “It would break my heart that it was going to landfill.”

But in 2016 Ms McGrath, who is doing a PhD at RMIT on food waste in the hospitality industry, embarked on an even more radical experiment: to see if she could survive for a week eating nothing but food she found left on other diners’ plates.

“My response to the ‘ick’ factor was simple: who doesn’t share food with friends or family at home or even out?” she wrote in The Guardian.

“The experience has changed the way I see the world and its food waste. I cannot walk past a cafe without glancing at someone’s plate. I clear other people’s trays in food courts. I may not be scavenging, but that instinct is ever present.”

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