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Food waste   |   Environment & ethics   |   Ethical business

Diary of a bin diver

LogoNo Time to Waste. This article is part of a joint campaign by Riverford and Wicked Leeks to help people cut food waste and raise awareness.

‘Seeing comes before words’ as the late storyteller John Berger once wrote.

With over half of our brain’s surface area devoted to processing visual information, we humans respond intuitively to powerful images. And it is this evolutionary hardwiring that I try to exploit through my photography-based activism.

It’s just past noon on a winter’s day in Denmark meaning that there is now finally enough natural light entering my fourth-floor apartment for me to get to work photographing last night’s dumpster-dived ‘urban harvest’.

Laying out kilograms upon kilograms of perfectly edible food on my living room floor is more time-consuming that you might think, but it is these laborious art displays that stir people to express their shock horror via social media networks.

Bin diving
Photos of discarded supermarket 'waste' can help to force change. Image @anurbanharvester.

Urban harvesting is hugely popular in Denmark, and, no wonder; the country’s 2,700 supermarkets jettison 163 million kgs of food every year –  23 per cent of the nation’s total food ‘waste’ – which equates to 391 million meals. One kilogram of food is the equivalent of 2.4 meals.

Reframing food ‘waste’ is critical if we are to comprehend the full scale of this issue, which is why I use human-scale terms like kilograms, not tonnes. Unlike their British counterparts, which officially declare 277 million kgs of annual wasted food, Danish supermarkets at least have the decency of making the vast majority of their dumpsters accessible to the public.

So, once stores have closed for the day, I collect my equipment – a 90-litre backpack, a pair of gloves, two headlamps, and a smartphone – and cycle to my three local supermarket dumpsters to document and harvest a fraction of the daily food ‘waste’ tsunami, ranging from 153 kgs of dairy cream to 800 eggs, 157 packets of bacon or 180 bags of coffee. Fresh produce, like Chilean blueberries for example, is often flown thousands of miles to end up in the trash.

After exposing supermarkets’ dirty secrets for over two years in one of the world’s so-called ‘most sustainable’ cities, Copenhagen, it is clear that the political elite and their associated organisations have allocated too many resources to highlighting citizens’ discarded comestibles and too little time to tackling the businesses that have a disproportionate impact on the entire food system’s food ‘loss’ and ‘waste’: the modern supermarket.

My investigations have revealed that supermarket food ‘waste’ is embedded into their business model. Companies are keeping the prices on soon-to-be-expired food products too high, for too long, in relation to their legal ‘expiry’ dates. Put simply, they are hoarding because they can afford to, as the financial penalties for dumping this still edible but overpriced food in the trash are not fit for purpose. The ever-worsening climate and biodiversity crises mean we must solve this issue as soon as possible.

Dumpsters
Denmark's supermarket dumpsters are left open whereas in Britain they are locked. Image @anurbanharvester.

Food banks are often seen as the solution, yet in 2020, Denmark’s network only saved 1.4 million kgs of supermarket ‘waste’ from the dumpster, a meagre 0.8 per cent of supermarkets’ annual total. The six internationally acclaimed WeFood social supermarkets fared even worse, selling only 358,000 kgs of the ‘waste’ inherited from their commercial counterparts, a meagre 0.2%.

Mobile apps like Denmark’s Too Good To Go – now worth £332 million – are hailed as giving consumers the chance to “save the planet” by buying discounted produce in so-called Magic Bags. In reality, supermarket bosses impose a daily cap of five bags per store; the 77 per cent discount and commission on goods sold through the app is seemingly too tough to swallow. So around the back, the dumpsters are still full.

To me, the best way to fight this abuse of market power would be a significant waste tax to compel supermarkets to mark down expiring food products much earlier, and to a price point that convinces customers to buy them.

By etching these food ‘waste’ photographs deep into people’s minds, my hope is that urban harvesters across the west can disrupt supermarket business models, so that, in time, we can transition to a fairer and more sustainable food system based on agro-ecological principles.

    Comments

    Indignant21

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    Since the lockdowns began I've had plenty of time to study the way supermarkets have been behaving throughout. As a consequence, I've begun to shop locally, using independent traders. Building a relationship with shop owners. They readily mark down things near their use-me-or-lose-me date. I'm ok financially at the moment, but I know that local shops do help out their regular customers if things go wrong. Years ago local shops offered things 'on tick' if you were a bit short, and that is coming back in a lot of places, but of course that is built on trust and knowing your customer. Some even drop bags off if the customer is elderly or disabled. I won't be going back to the supermarkets now.

    1 Reply

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    Jack Thompson

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    Hi Indignant21,
    I think what you highlight is a really interesting point, local businesses being embedded in the community (sometimes) and can react to the problems that customers/society are facing. Whether like you, people wanting to reduce waste, or helping out people in a time of need, or helping out an elderly customer. This is value that they can add, that supermarkets are just too impersonal and clunky to offer. Do you think because they are stakeholders in the community, that local businesses have more responsibility to the community? Can supermarkets change to offer more value to communities rather than seeing them as money making potential?

    0 Reply

    panda lady

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    i have known this goes on for a long time, its very frustrating and upsetting.

    Even before lockdown i have been using local small buisinesses. Butchers and farmers.
    I have a village shop and they always reduce products to move them on, but they also give away free foods to our local elderly and needy, or sheilding families.
    Its very rare for me to use a supermarket, these days. I love the fresh produce, with miss-shapes, and full of mud, It helps my children to understand where food comes from and that its not all perfect,clean and packaged!

    1 Reply

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    Jack Thompson

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    It's interesting, it's been a boom in local shopping, but it's also been a hugely successful period for supermarkets as well. Whenever I hear about everyone shopping locally, I think 'is this going to spell the end for supermarkets', they offer so much that supermarkets can't. But the again, I have to call into question my privilege to shop locally, to spend more time going to different shops, sometimes more money, being able to value those personal relationships, rather than having to value the cheapest way to feed a family. With inequality on the rise, are we going to see a further split of shopping habits?

    1 Reply

    panda lady

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    Alas Jack Thompson, I feel this will be the future, The supermarkets will manage as they have a large customer base, and some local buisinesses will also keep going.
    I find it much nicer to have that personal relationship with a local shop as they get ot know you and can recommend great produce to try, it does cost a little more but the taste and health benefits are great.
    I also understand that there are those families on a very tight budget who have to shop as cheap as possible, which is sad because they are missing out on the benefits of organic fresh produce.
    panda lady.

    1 Reply

    Jack Thompson

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    Thanks for your reply panda lady. I completely agree, I love getting to know the people that run the businesses, getting their insight into what I'm intending to do with their products (normally food) and seeing the story behind the business. As humans we love stories, so I think being able to lock on to that side is just so heart-warming. But equally if this pandemic has shown anything, it's that that the equality divide is being further accentuated. Where does one even start? Probably voting?

    0 Reply

    Juliet

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    I pick up food through the Fareshare app. Tescos & Waitrose donate food past its sell by date. I pick up twice a week and give to the local community. It's a good idea, it works well if you have the time, sign up and reduce waste.

    1 Reply

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    panda lady

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    thanks for this information about the Fareshare App, I am going to register because we have a few families (including myself) sheilding at the moment and would benefit from having staples delivered to them at home regularly. I know some of them are not able to access the internet so this is a great idea.
    panda lady

    0 Reply

    Happy Cambridge Homecook

    7 Months

    I was shocked (but sadly not really surprised) by this article, but also wondered what the 'bin diver' did with all this food once he had sorted and photographed it?

    Presumably all the fruit, veg and packaged items were usable? Not sure about the bacon/pork (which I believe is farmed very intensely in Denmark)?

    0 Reply

    Matt Homewood

    Matt Homewood is a food waste campaigner on a mission to end supermarket food waste in Denmark and beyond. By disrupting the prevailing supermarket business model and collecting the food that has been discarded, he hopes that society can re-envision a more ethical and sustainable food system, one that results in a wilder planet for all. His urban harvesting exploits can be followed on Instagram @anurbanharvester and through his website matthomewood.com.

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