Under the cover of night, I stealthily lift the lid of the dustbin and shine in my torch. It's below zero and my hands are shaking as I rummage inside. I'm on the hunt for food. But I'm not homeless and I could certainly afford to go to the shops if I wanted to. So, why am I doing this? Quite simply, I'm living as a freegan.
Dining on food from a dustbin may have once been the preserve of tramps, but for many it is now becoming a lifestyle choice. Freeganism - a combination of the words "free" and "vegan"- is a movement whose devotees take responsibility for the impact of their consumer choices and find alternative ways of meeting their everyday needs. This includes housing, clothing and, most surprisingly, food. Around 17 million tons of food are buried in British landfill sites every year, four million of which are edible. Sometimes, disposal is the cheapest option available to the food industry.
The freegan movement is popular in America, particularly New York, where people regularly meet up and hunt through the bins together on "trash tours". The man who is credited with popularising the US movement is 28-year-old Adam Weissman, an eco-activist, sometime security guard and founder of the website, www.freegan.info. "Freeganism is a reaction to waste," he says, "but also to the injustices like sweatshops and the destruction of the rainforests that go into producing goods in the first place. I realised that, as a purchasing consumer, I was complicit in that exploitation. But by consuming waste, I'm not supporting these practices."
Weissman, who lives in New York, says that he has never gone hungry. "People assume that food is spoiled, but really they are just bags of food. There is so much waste, it's easy to live this way." And it's not just food. "I've found designer clothes, stereos and computers. In our culture, we always need newer, shinier things."
Even so, scavenging in bins for food sounds downright disgusting, not to mention embarrassing. And vanity aside, there's also the possibility of food poisoning. So, just how easy is it to live on discarded food? And will it ever really catch on in Britain? I meet up with two London freegans, Ash Falkingham, 21, and Ross Parry, 46, for a crash course. "We call this 'the express lane'," Ash explains. We are in south London, in a multi-storey car park that accommodates the Iceland and Tesco bins. It's 5pm and dark enough for us to be inconspicuous. Ash and Ross march confidently over to the Iceland wheelie bins, lift the lid and start sorting the contents.
Clear plastic bags contain frozen meals, including chilli con carne and chicken in tarragon sauce. The packaging is still intact and the sell-by date is that day. Underneath are 10 tubs of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, with the same sell-by date. Nestling at the bottom is a tray of eggs. The best-before date is the following week, they're intact, and the only thing wrong is that one is missing. "We get a lot of eggs," says Ross. "Sometimes, if one breaks, they just chuck out the lot."
Although I keep my distance, the bins smell surprisingly neutral. After loading the first haul, we turn to the Tesco bins. They're full to the brim with more frozen foods, poppadams, crisps, and a tray of seven jars of Bonne Maman marmalade. One jar has smashed, making the others slightly sticky. But even though the sell-by date is January 2007, rather than just wipe the jars, the whole lot have been thrown away. "Growing up, we always used to eat things if they were a couple of days past the sell-by date," Ash says.
Ash and Ross live entirely from "urban foraging", and say that it has never made them ill. They visit markets after closing time, and the bins of supermarkets and high-street stores. A trip to India inspired Ross to adopt the freegan lifestyle. "In India, they don't waste anything. People go through the garbage and recycle everything. That's how they live. In the West, everything is going to landfill." They forage about once a week and find enough food to live on. Ross even manages to maintain his gluten-free diet. Any spare food is shared. "Most of my friends will take freegan food, even my parents," adds Ash, who wears perfectly good boots and a jumper liberated from a bin.
Back in their van after sorting the booty, we tuck into some chocolate- mocha slices while Ross and Ash tell stories of legendary hauls. Like the time a group of freegans found a bin full of 200 frozen chickens and another with a flat-screen TV. Or the two wheelie bins full of bananas and Brussels sprouts they found on Christmas Day. Ash e-mails me a few days after we meet to tell me that he has found a damaged, but still usable, MP3 player in a music-shop bin.
Armed with a fistful of freegan tips, my challenge is to live as a freegan for three days in my home town of Brighton. Too embarrassed to go on my own, I've roped in my friend Dave.
As we set off, it's freezing cold and the wind is biting. I've been warned that places such as Marks & Spencer and Morrisons lock their rubbish away, and after an hour and a half of searching, we haven't found one accessible bin. Eventually, we find the Co-op rubbish and... bingo! There's a plastic bag full of vegetables, but it's right at the bottom. So, while Dave holds the lid open, I climb up, balance on the side and reach in. A couple of passers-by throw us pitying looks. I feel mortified. But the sealed bag is full of leeks, potatoes, apples and carrots, and there is nothing wrong with them. As we triumphantly bag our free-food booty, we discuss potential menus and decide on soup. Now, we just need to find some bread. A subversive peek inside a Budgens bin reveals a loaf. But the snag is that we are right outside the station and it's rush hour. Too embarrassed to rummage, we head to the more secluded Iceland nearby, where we find a loaf of Kingsmill bread. The packaging is perfect and the sell-by date is today. The vegetables are firm and, after scrubbing them, we cook up a delicious hearty soup. Dessert is baked freegan apples with cinnamon, almonds and sultanas. Delicious.
I don't feel ill - a good start - so we tuck into our freegan breakfast of avocados (a gift from Ash and Ross from a bin in Wood Green) and the rest of the bread. We decide to visit a different Co-op and again find lots of vegetables and fruit - potatoes, cauliflower, spring greens, peppers, a melon and some salad. The salad is on the turn, but if it were in your fridge, you'd eat it. Other sell-by dates, like those of the spring greens, are not for another week. I don't understand why they'd be thrown out. Food waste costs Britain around £18bn annually, which is especially disturbing when you consider that four million people in Britain can't afford a healthy diet. After a lunch of leftover soup, subsequent searches at bakeries and patisseries prove fruitless. I even feel cheated when I spot someone else making off with a clear bag of what looks like frozen foods and yoghurts from a Budgens bin, but we have found enough food this morning for dinner and breakfast.
We've decided that using a few store-cupboard ingredients such as noodles is permissible, so on the menu tonight is a spicy noodle soup with green peppers, carrots from yesterday and some tender steamed cabbage on the side. For dessert we plump for another baked apple.
The only downside of being a freegan is that you can't plan what you are going to eat. Today, after a breakfast of melon, we head off to check out the bins in the vegetable market, which are malodorous compared with the supermarket refuse. I procure my first freegan lamp and, inspired by Ash's MP3 discovery, Dave wants to check the back of some electrical shops. Again, we find enough food to dine like kings: sausages, greens, swede, fennel cooked with lemon and roasted onion. Although three days is a short time to live as a freegan, I've already got a much better sense of how much food is unnecessarily condemned to landfill. I'm tempted to continue with my freegan lifestyle. After all, the food we found, after a good wash, was no different to buying it in the shop. Except, of course, it was free.
How to be a freegan
* Take gloves and a torch * Don't pass a "No Trespassing" sign * Use discretion when choosing what to eat. If in doubt, throw it out * Always leave the bin as clean as you found it * If the bag is ripped or any goods are exposed, just leave them behind * Just because a bin is no good one day, doesn't mean it will be like that every day * In general small to medium shops are probably best. Larger chains have their bins locked away * Wash all the items you find before consuming