When she worked for a supermarket, Ann witnessed huge bins of produce being thrown out at the end of each shift. She says the employees couldn’t take the wasted items for a reduced price or free of charge.
“It made me really angry. It made me question the corporations’ approach to waste and their environmental impact,” she says.
“If stores wish to discard perfectly edible produce, we must be able to take it and use it.”
Now Ann is one of thousands of Australians struggling to put food on the table as prices rise — and those dumpsters behind shops are ripe for plundering.
“My daughter is embarrassed by being ‘poor’ because all her schoolmates live in large private houses, and their parents drive expensive cars,” she says.
“We are not living on a poverty line, but we are living very simply, without luxuries or excesses that people with more money can afford. We live in a tiny government-subsidised unit, which is old and basic.”
Ann, who lives in Sydney, considers herself a novice when it comes to dumpster diving — but says it can be a lifesaver when she’s struggling financially.
“Knowing that retail giants, as well as smaller companies, discard ridiculous amounts of waste daily, made me think I could use it to … stay afloat.
“It’s safe, it’s environmentally friendly, it’s not a desperate act … We are not vermin, we are people who make choices.”
Diver turns provider
On the other end of the spectrum is Brenden Rikihana, a lifelong dumpster diver.
Growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s, Brenden’s earliest memory of diving is his mother telling him to jump into an open skip at a garden centre to retrieve plants and garden pots among other treasures.
“It wasn’t called dumpster diving, it was called scavenging. In the ’90s I was working as a chef and I’d collect the food thrown out from our kitchen, it was still in good condition and very edible,” he says.
“When I came to Australia in the early 2000s, I started curb-side picking the hard rubbish before discovering retail and food chain store waste.”
Now Brenden documents his dives online, at Bin Living with Big B, with hundreds of thousands of followers.
“Initially [I did it] to save money and attain things for free … I’ve raised a family with other people’s rubbish. I repair, reuse and repurpose what I find and fed my family with the food I saved,” he says.
“Now it’s a service to the greater community … I donate nearly all the food.
“Once I found 10 25-kilogram boxes of bananas, three 5-kilogram trays of avocado, and 10 10-kilogram boxes of peaches in one dumpster. I donated them to the food bank [and it] fed 50 families.”
Statistics on supermarket food waste reveal that 20 to 40 per cent of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they even reach the shelves, mostly due to standards around how they should look. What’s more is that businesses in Australia create 2.5 million tonnes of organic waste every year.
According to Foodbank’s annual hunger report, 1.2 million Australian children went hungry in 2021 while one in six adults said they didn’t have enough to eat.
Of those respondents, almost half said this meant going a whole day without food at least once a week and almost 40 per cent said they had never experienced food insecurity prior to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, according to a report commissioned by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, Australia wastes around 7.6 million tonnes of food a year.
OzHarvest founder and chief executive Ronni Kahn says access to fresh, nutritious, and affordable food is a basic human right — and seeing families resort to dumpster diving is a sad reflection that good food is still needlessly going to waste.
“OzHarvest is committed to working directly with as many food businesses as possible to make sure that edible food is donated and delivered directly and safely to people in need,” she says.
“We currently rescue 250 tonnes of food a week from over 3,000 businesses across the country.”
Feeding the demand
Perth app developer Stuart Kidd believes corporate food retailers need to do more to prevent excess waste.
“Some people are sick of seeing the amount of waste that the stores push into dumpsters on a daily basis. The big retailers say they are working with OzHarvest, Second Bite and Food Bank, but what they donate is only scratching the surface of what is being thrown away,” he says.
“Food prices are rising quickly and more parents are googling ‘dumpster diving’ to make ends meet.”
Last year, Stuart founded Foody Bag — a food waste organisation that uses an app to redistribute food leftovers from Perth businesses to the public.
“With other food waste apps, retailers set a guesstimate of how much food waste there will be the next day. If the next day is super busy … the food waste apps cancel the order, leading to disappointed food waste app customers,” he says.
Foody Bag differs because retailers only post what they have left in the afternoon and those items are allocated to the customers when orders come through the app.
People can also use the app to give away food from their own pantry or fridge.
Data from FoodWise — a national campaign against food waste — shows around 18 per cent of all food purchased in Australia is thrown away, with as much as 70 per cent of the discarded food being perfectly edible.
Stuart explains that his platform will also make it easier for dumpster divers to give away high quantities of food to people in need.
“Essentially, the feature will open up a food highway for people who are struggling and need food quickly and can pick it up locally,” he says.
No end in sight
As inflation grows and the east coast’s run of wet weather persists, access to affordable food will continue to be a problem.
Ronni Khan, from OzHarvest, says the cost-of-living crisis has created an increase in demand. A third of the charities OzHarvest supports say they are not able to meet the current level of demand for food.
“One charity in Coffs Harbour said in the last month they have gone from helping an average of 60 people a day to 90 — pointing to the unaffordability of fuel, food, and specifically housing and rent,” she says.
In light of the recent spike in food prices, the number of people attending OzHarvest’s Waterloo market in inner city Sydney has risen from 1,400 to 1,700 a week — and many are struggling to make ends meet for the first time.
“Our recent community needs survey found that, on average, our charities report that 30 per cent of their clients are new in the last six months,” Ronni says.
“There is a growing cohort of people who are seeking food support for the first time.”