People are turning to dumpster diving to survive the cost of living crisis

People are turning to dumpster diving to survive the cost of living crisis

part ofAt What Cost?
As the crisis continues to bite Daisy Schofield meets some of those using waste to weather the storm.

For as long as he can remember, Jack*, age 27 from Bristol, would see his father peeping into skips with an eye for discarded treasures. “I picked up the habit in tandem,” he says, “occasionally seeing a bin outside a shop and thinking, ‘Why not?”

Nowadays, Jack regularly hunts through bins looking for discarded items – everything from food, to electronics and clothing. Along with his dad’s habits, Jack says he was influenced by the culture in Bristol, where people will often leave things outside their homes for others to take. He recalls recently finding a “huge sack” of pastries thrown away by the Co-op. “I froze as many as would fit in my freezer, and then showered my friends with sweet treats.”

More than just a way to score a free meal, Jack believes in the radical potential of bin diving. “It's a really satisfying way to stop money flowing from my pocket into that of some rich man who doesn't even need it,” he says. It’s a feeling which has become even more acute for Jack after witnessing the rich get richer during a cost of living crisis. The boss of Tesco, for example, reportedly earned almost £4.5m last year, despite profits halving and price rises for shoppers.

Sandra*, age 28 from the Midlands, used to work at the Co-op, and says she was appalled by the amount of food thrown away by the supermarket chain. “It frustrated me to hell,” she recalls. “I started taking bits home, just for self gain, but then noticed I could help other people by giving out the food that's still OK to eat.” (The Co-op did not respond to Huck’s request for comment).

With £1.2billion worth of fruit, veg and bread binned in the UK every year, it’s clear that the problem Sandra is describing goes beyond any one supermarket chain. The amount of items wasted is even more stark when considering the fact that in 2021/22, there were 4.7 million people, or 7% of the UK population, in food poverty, including 12% of children.

While Sandra no longer works at the Co-op, seeing the amount of food thrown away by the supermarket is why she currently bin dives. “It's not usually essential items though,” Sandra says of the goods she usually finds. “I find it's mostly chocolate, photo frames, candles, kid’s toys.”

Now working part-time in a charity shop, Sandra says she is angered by the “perfectly usable” items thrown away by the store and the fact that they will sometimes slash the clothes that they put in the bin. “That's disgusting, in my opinion,” she says. The waste produced by charity stores is well-documented: as Oliver Franklin- Wells explains in his book WASTELAND: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future, only between 10 and 30 per cent of second-hand donations to charity shops are actually resold in-store. The rest, the journalist found, “disappears into a machine you don’t see: a vast sorting apparatus in which goods are graded, resold to commercial partners and then often exported to the Global South”. Here, such as in Accra, Ghana, the exports of waste and excess clothing has contributed to the collapse of local textile industries, with huge swathes ending up in landfill.

This disposal of perfectly usable clothing is particularly egregious when considering that 5.5 million adults in the UK (13% of the population) are experiencing clothing deprivation, a situation that has been made worse by inflation, with clothing prices seeing an average increase of 11%.

Of course, it’s not just charity shops guilty of rendering the things they’ve thrown away unuseable. Supermarkets sometimes make expired food inedible with bleach to deter bin divers, while goods are shredded by designer clothing stores so they can’t be resold for cheaper elsewhere.

For other dumpster divers, rummaging through bins isn’t so much about taking a stance against waste or corporate greed, but a matter of survival. This has been the case for Paula, age 49 from Manchester. Last Christmas, Paula and her husband were illegally evicted by a rogue landlord, and soon found themselves living in a homeless shelter for the first time.

After stumbling across videos of bin divers on TikTok, Paula and her husband decided to give it a go themselves. (The hashtag ‘dumpsterdiving’ has 5.4 billion views on the app, with many people now using TikTok to document their finds.) “We started to really enjoy it,” Paula says. “It’s like a treasure trove [of] useful essential items such as washing powder, cleaning products and plenty of food that we could never afford.” Finding a bin bag full of chocolate, snacks and drinks just earlier this month was a “godsend”, Paula says, explaining how bin diving has helped her to get back on her feet after a particularly difficult time. Put simply, “We cannot survive without doing this,” she says. Now in a rented flat, she’s been bin diving in order to furnish her new home. “Without diving, we could never have afforded to do our house up.”

During a cost of living crisis, more people are relying on bin diving to make ends meet. And yet people who bin dive are often treated like criminals. Sharon, age 50 from South Wales, says she was reprimanded by police while trying to retrieve around £500 of dog food from a bin owned by the pet store Dougie’s earlier this year. (Dougie’s did not respond to Huck’s request for comment.) “When [the police] first showed up, they asked me, ‘Do you have a weapon?’” Sharon recalls. After she explained to them what she was doing, the police swiftly escorted her off the premises. They searched her car to check she hadn’t taken anything from the bin with her, and warned her that she could be done for “trespassing” and “theft” if she was caught again. (South Wales Police did not respond to Huck’s request for comment.)

While Sharon got off with just a warning, it’s since left her too scared to bin dive. “I work at a cleaning factory, and if they do a police check on me, I could lose my job,” she explains. She’d wanted to take the dog food not just for herself, but for other pet owners as well, noting how many have been struggling with the huge hikes on pet food recently.

Sean Thomas, a reader in Law at the University of York Law School, authored a paper in 2010 titled “Do Freegans Commit Theft?” ('Freeganism' is the practice of reclaiming and eating food that has been discarded). He says that bin diving represents a legal grey area, and that how supermarkets and other companies respond to people taking their waste will vary.

“There’s no explicit law that says you can’t take something out of a bin,” Thomas tells Huck. On Facebook groups and other online forums for dumpster divers in the UK, it’s often agreed that if the bin is on private property, this counts as trespass – if not, it’s perfectly legal to take items from it. But Thomas considers this to be a misinterpretation of the law. While you can’t be charged for theft of abandoned property, “the law on abandoned property in England and Wales is really complex and difficult and it's not clear,” he says. For something to be ‘abandoned’ the owner would have to be indifferent to what has become of the goods: this is tricky to prove if the owner were to take legal action.

“There is of course the intuitive idea that stuff in a bin is there because it is no longer wanted, and thus it is abandoned,” says Thomas. “However, there is no real clear definitive law on the matter.” The fact that the item is in the bin could, however, help the bin diver or freegan demonstrate that they did not have dishonest intentions so to make the offence of theft (according to the Theft Act 1968, “a person is guilty of theft if they dishonestly appropriate property belonging to another”).

“Freeganism [in the UK] now arguably is criminal; it is arguably theft now… this is profoundly wrong,” Thomas says. He believes that the growth of dumpster diving and freeganism over the past two decades illustrates the problem of ballooning corporate waste. “Ideally, there shouldn’t be any possibility for freeganism,” he adds. “But that’s utopian.”

As the cost of living crisis worsens, it is vital that the government makes it easier for supermarkets and other businesses to allow people to take goods that have been thrown out. Until this happens, bin divers like Sandra say they will not be deterred despite the potential risks. “People are starving and skint and brand new food is going straight into landfill because it's gone past the best before date,” Sandra says. “It's something I can't comprehend or be OK with.”

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