“Es ist perfekt,” says Anna, regarding a courgette she just fished out of the dumpster from the back of the Spar supermarket. She slips it into the bag already containing cheese, bananas, tomatoes and Kaisersemmeln. It’s late at night and we are using a small flashlight to illuminate the dark recesses in which we are working.
There are four dumpsters behind the store, all of them filled to the brim. Some of it is unusable, but a lot of it still fit for human consumption. “Ah, wurst!” exclaims Joanna, the other dumpster diver who I am with, “you want it?” I demur, still acclimatizing to the world of dumpster diving. I can’t quite bring myself to consuming meat as of yet, preferring to stick to fruit and vegetables.
Some reading this might be wondering why this is happening, why we are digging through the trash at 12 a.m. in an affluent and developed country like Austria. Anna and Joanna are partaking in what is known as dumpster diving. It’s essentially the modern, urban equivalent of foraging. It is of tenuous legality as, strictly speaking, the contents of dumpster are still the property of the dumpster’s owner.
But it is widely practiced and is routinely disregarded by the police as the “theft” is usually of low value items. Dumpster diving falls under the larger umbrella of the movement of Freeganism (a portmanteau of “Free” and “Veganism”). Freeganism as a movement is couched in an ethos of anti-consumerism and it blossomed during the mid-nineties.
And despite having the word “free” in its name, it’s not about not having any money — although it certainly helps that there’s free food literally just laying around — it’s more to do with a reaction towards a system of food production that has gone completely off the rails. For ordinary consumers, it is almost impossible to compute the sheer labyrinthine mess that food waste has become.
Food waste isn’t a new phenomenon at all. In fact the food waste created by roaming bands of nomadic humans is one of the main factors that turned the Gray Wolf into the domesticated dog thirty thousand years ago. But the cocktail of 21st Century life, globalization, and irresponsible corporate and consumer behavior has exacerbated the problem to chronic levels. Waste emanates from every corner of what is known as the value chain — farmers, producers, transport, hotels, cruise ships, wholesalers, retailers and, of course, consumers.
Photo: Francois Badenhorst
Half is wasted
The British Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated last year that half of all food worldwide is wasted. A European Commission report estimated that in 2014, 100 million tonnes of food will go to waste in the EU alone. In developing countries, most food is wasted during production, but comparatively little is wasted at the consumption stage. But in developed countries like Austria, most of the waste occurs at the consumption stage. That is, people disposing of perfectly acceptable foodstuffs.
So, it’s not just about maximizing strategies like recycling and composting, but more about actually improving consumption. According to The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the best way to combat food waste at the consumption stage — that is, households and restaurants etc. — is to simply reduce its creation. Initially this may seem like facile advice, but through simple initiatives like planning your shopping, minimizing the number of spontaneous buys that easily go to waste, and storing food properly, waste can be greatly reduced.
Food is too cheap
It is, of course, extremely difficult to exercise restraint in an highly competitive retail environment that is geared towards getting consumers to buy more and more. As Jan Kees Vis, an executive at the consumer goods giant Unilever, told The Telegraph, “A big factor in why we waste so much food is that food has become too cheap.” Consumers in countries like Austria simply do not adequately value the food they buy. And consumer behavior exacerbates this race to the bottom of the bargain bin which also has the added impact of creating a deeply adversarial atmosphere of competition between companies in the food sector that further blunts ability to effect change.
Global population increases — Earth’s population will be over 9 billion by 2050 — are causing many sleepless nights. In addressing this approaching challenge, there’s an overemphasis on increase: increase food production, increase funding etc. But talk of decreasing the wastefulness of our current process of food production is drowned out. If we can reduce waste then the increase needed to satisfy rising global demand on food production wouldn’t be that great. The sheer levels of food waste can be hard to grasp. A startling report released this week by the Canadian consulting firm Value Chain Management found, for instance, that the annual food waste from European cruises could comfortably feed 200,000 inhabitants of poorer countries for a whole year.
Fortunately, there is at least one charity group in Austria, Wiener Tafel, who are tackling the waste problem, by collecting food which is not deemed suitable for sale, but which is absolutely fine for consumption, and offering it to thousand's of Vienna's homeless people. Another group operates a 'social supermarket' which employs long-term unemployed people, and which offers collected food at very low prices to Vienna's low-income families.
As Anna, Joanna and I walk back to their apartment, carrying our salvaged bounty of fruit, vegetables and cheese, it became clear that freeganism and dumpster diving will only carry us a small distance. They are great and worthwhile attempts to subvert the overarching climate of waste that contaminates modern life — but the solution is nothing less than real, strident recalibration of the entire food system. We unpack the bag of its contents in the kitchen and I pick up an orange — juicy, perfectly edible — and I ask, “why would they throw this away?”
“I don’t know,” says Anna. “It’s such a pity”.