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‘I got £10,000-plus of food for free’: the bin diver making the most of thrown-away groceries

Tim Barratt* lives on a diet of organic steak and ethically reared £25 roast chickens, asparagus and fresh pasta costing £7 a pack. But the 22-year-old hasn’t spent any money on food – with a few exceptions such as ground coffee, spices and rice – for a year and a half. He has eaten the equivalent, he thinks, of upwards of £10,000 of mainly top-end fare, for free.

All his dinners (or “binners”, as he likes to call them) with friends, breakfasts and packed lunches are made up of ingredients scavenged from bins.

Commuting home in the evenings, the engineer from Edinburgh scoots round the back of delis, cafes and shops to grab the best discarded produce before it is picked up by rubbish collectors later in the evening.

This often involves crawling head-first into a wheelie bin and washing bin juice off packets, so “it can get quite gross” – although Barratt says he has a strong stomach and that, most of the time, once unwrapped, the food is “perfect”.

It might be an extreme and possibly legally dubious way of reducing your grocery bill at a time of soaring food price inflation but bin diving – AKA “skipping” and “freeganing” – has become a popular undercover activity among individuals trying to save money and rescue still-fresh food, as well as those who take a political stance against food waste and overconsumption.

In Bristol, Barratt says, it is so common that there is competition for the best bins. People discuss their hobby on Reddit threads and via covert WhatsApp groups but rarely share locations for fear that their favourites will disappear as shops get wind and destroy the food before it can be salvaged.

Barratt, who now lives and bin dives in Edinburgh, started out in London after a friend spotted piles of still very edible bread piling up in bin bags outside a bakery, had a rummage and suggested that Tim should see what he could find, too.

He would go for a cycle after work and look around the refuse areas of his local shops, and was amazed at what had been thrown out: 20 tins of pre-mixed gin and tonic, a stack of Tony’s Chocolonely high-end chocolate bars and enough posh salmon to stock his freezer for weeks.

“I want the food packaged, so I avoid restaurants, where scraps from plates might be mixed in the bags. The ideal is shops where they have to sell stuff fresh – sushi places will bin everything at the end of the day, for example, as do bakeries.

“Many commercial bin collections are daily, at about 11pm, so there’s a window between food being thrown out and it being picked up.

“I find the fancier the shop, the better. Independent delis, where everything is beautifully laid out – they always have great bins. Supermarkets I wouldn’t bother with because they often lock bins and destroy the food.”

He says you get a sense of what is in a bin bag without opening it. “First, pick it up – if it’s heavy, give it a squeeze. You might feel the firm texture of steak, for example. You get to know what shops get rid of and the colour of the food waste bags or bins in different areas of cities.”

You also get a sense of what is safe to eat, he believes, having suffered mild food poisoning only once – “from some ravioli with extravagant ingredients” – although he warns that you have to be careful.

“You get to know the shop from the bins and that when it’s a day out of date, you’re not going to get food poisoning. You also get a knack of knowing if and when food has been taken out of the freezer and how long it might have been sitting there.

“Normally you find food a day out of sell-by date – things two or three days past is my limit. It also depends on the time of year and whether it’s very hot. Sometimes, food might not be in the bin because of its sell-by date – it might be a product recall. So I tend not to eat food that I find that has been binned before it’s out of date because maybe the reason it’s there is a lot more serious.”

But, generally, Barratt compares it with engineering, where, for example, a bridge has to be twice as strong as it actually needs to be. “I think thrown-away food is often the same: it’s most likely fine but businesses are erring on the side of caution.”

He stresses that he thinks it’s important to bin dive politely. “If people tear bin bags, break bins or otherwise leave a mess, this creates work for the employees, who probably weren’t responsible for the food waste.”

He has never been stopped. Most people look away in embarrassment when they see him going through bins.

Lawyers emphasise that taking food from commercial bins, even though it is destined for landfill, is against the law

“Once I had an employee come out and say that he was not allowed to take it [the discarded food], so he’s glad someone does.

“I’ve chatted to refuse collectors before, too. I thought they would be annoyed or tell me to put things back but I think they bin dive, too.”

While freeganism is often referred to as a legal grey area, and there have been petitions online calling for it to be made more accessible, lawyers emphasise that taking food from commercial bins, even though it is destined for landfill, is against the law.

Sam Boileau, a senior counsel in the environment and societal team at the law firm Dentons, who has been advising on waste law for more than 20 years, says: “It’s really clearcut that it is unlawful to remove waste which is awaiting collection from commercial premises, and this is for a bunch of reasons. First, legal ownership in waste generally sits with the waste holder under UK law – usually the business that has generated the waste and in whose containers it is being stored. You have a duty of care under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 that requires any holder of waste to store it in a safe and secure manner, and they can only transfer it to someone who is an official waste carrier. That wouldn’t apply to an individual rootling through the bin bags.”

He adds that there is also the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, where a business is required not to expose members of the public to risk. “Business owners would for that reason be very nervous about allowing members of the public to go through their waste. And the law of trespass is relevant, too.”

Whether bin divers would actually be prosecuted is questionable. There have been cases in the past where people have been taken to court for taking food from commercial bins but amid the current cost of living crisis, during which there has been a rapid rise in food poverty, it is arguably hard to see that happening.

In 2014 the Guardian told how the Crown Prosecution Service had dropped a case against three men allegedly caught taking discarded food from bins outside an Iceland store after an explosion of criticism over the decision to bring charges against them. They had allegedly been caught taking tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and Mr Kipling cakes from the dustbins behind a branch of the supermarket.

Some people will be disturbed at just how much usable food is being thrown away by businesses. The sustainability charity Wrap says food production and consumption are responsible for about 30% of global carbon emissions, yet 1.3bn tonnes of food is wasted globally each year.

It adds: “We throw away 6.6m tonnes of household food waste a year in the UK, [of which] almost three-quarters is food we could have eaten.”

There are important areas of law that are designed to discourage the generation of food waste and, Boileau says, “you may argue that if you are sifting through perfectly good food waste, in the process of being discarded or awaiting collection, then you are reducing the amount of waste generated, and there are some environmental law principles that support that endeavour”.

He adds that while it would be “quite romantic” if there were a loophole in this area to be exploited, “in reality the downsides and legal risks for businesses are pretty severe, such as someone injuring themselves or getting life-threatening food poisoning”.

Barratt is unconcerned about being caught or prosecuted, believing “the police have better things to deal with”.

* Not his real name.