Fine art student Louiza Hamidi gets most of her food from supermarket waste bins, which she calls 'binning'. She explains why scavenging is simply eco-friendly common sense.
A friend told me about binning 18 months ago and I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me before. It seemed like a natural progression for me. I was already interested in becoming ‘greener’ and was very aware of my own consumption and trying to decrease it.
I wanted to see for myself what it felt like to take and eat food from bins, so he agreed to take me with him. I was really nervous the first time; I was worried that it might be illegal, but I wasn’t worried about becoming ill after eating out-of-date food. He’d been doing it for six years and he’d never been ill.
Why I don't call myself a freeganThe first time, I went to three of the big supermarket chains. I can’t remember what food we found, but I remember that when I got home, I started crying. I was thinking of all the food that had been wasted and how important it is to save food waste and share it with others.
Since then, most of my food has come from bins. Sometimes I don't go to a food shop for weeks. Binning can be seasonal. Over the winter, especially over Christmas, there was so much available, and I didn’t have much money, so I got all my food from bins.
I've recently begun to question the use of the word 'freegan' to describe my binning habit. When I'm in town, I often talk to the community of people who sleep on the streets. During one conversation, I was confronted with some comments that suggested that this term can be offensive to people who really can't afford anything, and who therefore really are 'freegan'. Even though I eat from bins and try to avoid supporting the monetary system, I do still pay rent, council tax and bills, and I now feel very aware of this when people say, "I'm freegan".
We share food aroundI usually go binning with other people, several times a week. Typically, my housemate, Libby Russell, who’s also an art student, and I, will go out on our bikes at around midnight. We have regular spots: we’ll cycle to three or four small supermarkets.
The bins can be quite dirty sometimes, but the food we find is usually in clean black bags, which have been tied up. One bag will be full of bread and others will have dairy produce, fruit, and so on. There have been times when we’ve recovered way over £100-worth of food in one evening.
We tend to take everything we find, so often we come home with our backpacks and bike baskets overflowing with food. I avoid eating animal products, but Libby and other friends eat the bin food that contains dairy. After a big haul, we distribute food to people around our community in Southampton. We don’t want it to be wasted.
My pop-up food waste caféLibby and I run a pop-up food waste café art installation. The inspiration for that came from us finding so much kitchenware in charity shop bins that we realised we could furnish a café with it and feed people from all the waste food we find.
A big part of our life is distributing the food we take from bins. I feel it’s important to recover and use food waste, but it’s even more important to spread the word about this issue. Most of all, I want to work alongside supermarkets to redistribute surplus and break down the boundaries between the corporations and the communities.
I plan to get really immersed in the food waste campaign in Southampton. There's lots to be done here and I want to work with others to make a difference.
Shops sometimes spoil leftover foodBinning isn't easy. Some supermarkets lock their bins into metal cages, so we can’t get inside them. As a result, the food is wasted.
I’ve heard that some supermarkets pour bleach on leftover food to prevent people taking it. At one shop – I’m not going to mention which one – they rip open all the packets and pour sauces and other products on the food so that it’s a mess and no-one could enjoy eating it. I can’t believe this company is paying people to spoil food that perhaps someone else could have eaten. What is going on?
Stealing or recycling?I don’t see binning as stealing. I feel that it’s saving, not stealing, from society. I was caught by the police once: they said that the shop that owned the waste food made money from it, by employing people to go through it to find stuff that was suitable for recycling. I don’t believe that!
At first, when I was binning, I used to be in a hurry to take whatever I could find and get away as quickly as possible in order to avoid being caught, but now I don’t mind if I’m caught. I’m happy to talk about it and it’s an opportunity to create a conversation about food waste. People have been taking leftover food from bins for decades, but it's only recently that freeganism has been talked about. The more this issue is discussed and becomes common knowledge, the better.
Supermarket clean sweepThere are lots of campaigns to reduce food waste, and supermarkets are changing. In summer 2013, Tesco released figures about its food waste and then in January 2014, the rest of the supermarkets responded by saying they’re going to do the same thing. Even just coming clean about how much they waste is a good start.
Although I doubt anyone would ever take legal action, I do appreciate that supermarkets could fear trouble if someone becomes ill from eating food from the bins. But as long as you’re sensible, you’re unlikely to have any problems. Freegans advocate using their eyes, nose and sense of taste to work out whether food is safe to eat. We find so much waste food that we don’t need to put our health at risk by eating anything dodgy. We can be picky about what we eat!
My friends and I are careful, and none of us have ever become ill after eating waste food. It probably helps that I don’t eat animal products, which are more likely to deteriorate by being unrefrigerated.
I try to be ethicalI’m mainly driven by a sense of social responsibility. I hate waste and I like to give food to other people. I have saved a lot of money by not buying food, but that’s not the only reason I do it.
I think it’s completely immoral to cause the unnecessary suffering that we impose on other species for our own consumption and profit, but it is even more immoral to then waste these products.
As I save money through binning, I can afford to make sure the produce I do buy is locally and ethically sourced. It takes much more effort to find something you want to eat from bins than to purchase it, so occasionally I buy staples or treat myself to something luxurious. I tend not to use supermarkets, though. I feel better about spending that little bit extra at my local shop. I try to get fruit and veg from a market. I’m not perfect. I do use convenience stores now and then, but my aim is not to use supermarkets at all.
I try to be environmentally aware and live in a minimalistic way. I rarely buy things. Instead, I swap, use Freecycle and exchange favours with others.
What other people think about freeganismPeople have said to me, "That’s gross, why do you do it?" So we take a lot of photos and show anyone who’s interested what we’ve found. They soon realise that the food is clean and most of it is either within its sell-by date, or one day past its sell-by date, but perfectly fit for human consumption. Once they can see that it’s fine to eat, their negativity tends to fade away.
At first, my mum was horrified by me eating food from bins. She said, “I’ll give you money if you can’t afford to buy food.” It took a while for me to explain why I’m doing it and that it’s not only about money; it’s about morals and social responsibility. But she accepts it now.
Binning has changed my lifeI feel healthier mentally, because it’s made me feel and think much more positively about food. As a teenager, I struggled with an eating disorder, and became obsessed with food, but over time I've developed a much better relationship with food. In the last couple of years, I’ve been using my interest in food to do something more positive: to save food waste and share it with other people.
After going through a period in my life when I would only eat alone, eating in company is very important to me and I treasure the connections and conversations that arise through sharing our food together.
The ethical mindset that has led to me taking food from bins is very deeply ingrained in me now and I don’t think that will ever change. However, there may be times when location and lifestyle will dictate that I won't get my food from bins. I hope that in years to come there won't be the option of finding food in bins, as it will all be adequately distributed and not wasted.
Binning has changed my attitude to food because you never know what you’re going to get. So sometimes I’ll eat things that I wouldn’t normally buy and foods that don't really go together. I have fun with this!
After graduating this summer, I’ll be in Mexico for a month, helping out at a summer school that’s run by someone who started an organisation called Food Not Bombs in Boston in 1980. It’s all about food preservation, sustainability, community organisation and social change. I can’t wait.
Find out more about Louiza's art.
Read about an eco-friendly food project in Leeds.
Tell your own story on the Storyboard.
Come and chat on Logarty talk.