Freegan Fighters

Published by Glasgow Guardian, 7 October 2007

They strike in the early hours, while most of the city sleeps; sometimes alone, sometimes in crowds of a dozen. Anyone is a suspect. Put this paper down and have a look at the nearest stranger – could they be? Meet my new favourite community of people – Freegans.

You might think that consuming waste food lies deep in the preserve of the impoverished or daring, but it's also a rather practical alternative to extortionate weekly shopping at Somerfield and Iceland, as many Glasgow students and residents have found. Supermarket waste bins in particular have become free-of-charge vending machines in the last few years, because of the excess amount of unsold food and goods thrown out to waste at the end of the last shift – their lids forced open and their contents raided by night by the munchie-craving. But it didn't stop there. The practise has become so popular throughout Britain that it has snowballed into a phenomenon known as 'Freeganism' – and the ethical backlash against British supermarkets has been rattling teacups in their head offices ever since.

The Freegan lifestyle involves salvaging discarded, unspoiled food from supermarket waste bins – food that has passed its expiration date, but is still edible and nutritious. They salvage the food, not always because they are hungry, poor or homeless, but sometimes as a political statement against the over-disposability of consumerism.

“To be honest, part of the appeal is that it has to be done in the cover of darkness, and it's a lot more exciting than your average supermarket experience,” comments Ailsa Kay, 21, a Glasgow student. “However, the more I frequented the bins, the more food I discovered. It made me determined to undermine huge supermarkets by using their waste and not spending a penny more than I really needed to.”

The Marks and Spencer bins on Ashton Lane in particular served as Freegan youth clubs last year, with sometimes up to a dozen taking anything they liked the look of – giddily burrowing through plastic bags like a bunch of seven-year-olds dizzy on lemonade. At best, you could come out with anything – currys, juice, new potatoes, pies, salads, sandwich fillers, Yorkshire puddings, (including my favourite – two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, topped with a creamy white wine sauce) all hitting their expiration on the day or the day after; at worst, a few loaves of bread to cram into the freezer. So why buy their crap if you can eat their scrap?

“The first time I went I found an Irish soda bread and a chocolate Swiss roll, both still sealed in their packaging and their sell-by date was the following day,” says Ailsa. “It's a great feeling when you manage to feed yourself and a group of friends without spending a penny, and re-using food that would otherwise just be taken to a landfill site. I've come across many characters in the early hours – some in suits, some in kilts, some curious and some who either look extremely confused or disgusted.”

However, the Freegan party has recently been busted by a harsher enforcement of wastage policies. Marks & Spencers have begun locking their bins at night, and are known to now purposely open the packaging of waste food, to prevent people like Ailsa from taking it. “It's common sense to know what's edible. I find it particularly frustrating when you find a bin choked with food, only to discover that an employee has slashed open the packaging, making the food unusable.”

A supervisor from Marks & Spencers claimed that new health rules had been in place for a number of years, but only recently had head offices begun issuing preventative measures to combat freeganism. A moral pulse exists however, in their 24-hour stores, who occasionally have food waste picked up by the charity Rainbow, and distributed to the homeless. This progressive agreement is exempt from such wastage policies as the waste in 24-hour supermarkets is thrown out minutes after being removed from the shelf, when it is left for sometimes a full day at room temperature in stores with opening hours. The Greggs bakery on Byres Road was also until recently partial to giving away a few unsold sausage rolls and on mornings they are collected – but now the delivery driver is explicitly forbidden from giving any food away, on the same health grounds.

After the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, I wrote a long letter to the Co-op I used to work in – challenging the wastage policy of our store and suggesting that some of the waste be sent over to the worst-off parts in East Asia, or at least be put to some other use. One of my points was: “Surely starving people would appreciate countless loaves of bread and other goods, regardless of their expiry dates, and would rather have their lives saved and have a stomach bug than starve to death.” All I received was a chuckle and when I suggested that they send the letter to their head office, my manager said that no-one would read it. The following day we threw away twelve stacks of bread and five full bags of snack foods, all of which had 'gone off' over the Christmas closing period, and all of which was delivered to a landfill site – 34 miles away. And to achieve what, exactly?

When it comes to food waste, shops and supermarkets have two options – one costs something and achieves nothing, the other costs nothing and achieves something. I've not set out to flood these pages with hyperbole, and I've tried to avoid churning out yet another hymn to recycling. The redistribution and availability of unsold food in Glasgow should be given the green light, or even debated in the relevant circles – when it is a glaring truth that our supermarkets cannot contain the issue by simply locking their bins.