Putting A Spin On Food Waste

When I lived in the City, one of my favourite activities was to go dumpster diving, because you could find all sorts of amazing food in dumpsters without too much trouble. Some companies even made sort of a point of facilitating the process, without outright admitting that was what they were doing. Bread, chocolate, fresh fruit, exotic cheeses, produce, pasta…it was possible to assemble entire meals out of other people’s waste, and I’m not talking about food scraped from plates at restaurants, but whole orders of food discarded because they were past expiry, or not pretty enough, or overstocked.

Food waste is a chronic problem for grocery stores, bakeries, and some manufacturing facilities. They want to stock and make enough to meet the needs of their customers, without making so much that they end up with extreme leftovers. If they don’t make enough, people will complain, and if it happens often enough, customers will turn elsewhere to meet their needs. If they make too much, they end up wasting food, and because they can’t do anything with it, they reluctantly throw it away.

Some donate to food banks, but this isn’t always an option. Food banks are choosy about what they accept for liability reasons, and likewise, donors are careful as well. If a store is discarding cheese that’s past expiration, for example, it doesn’t want to give it to a food bank because if someone gets sick, it could turn into a lawsuit. The only option is to throw it away.

Some stores use locked dumpsters or soil their food to ensure it won’t be reclaimed. This, too, is done for liability reasons; stores don’t want people suing for injuries, illness, and other issues that might arise. It’s also done out of a sense of meanness in some cases as well, since obviously stores would prefer that people come in to buy food, rather than taking it from the dumpster. Employees opposed to these policies may try to reach out to community dumpster divers to work out an arrangement that will allow for redistribution without putting them at risk, but this isn’t always possible.

Other stores may create dumpstering areas that, while they meet basic liability requirements with fencing and ‘no trespassing’ signs and employees who will duly appear to halfheartedly chase you off, are clearly designed to allow people to take food waste. The bakery, for example, might separate usable loaves from waste like onion skins, creating a big pile of perfectly good bread that’s not contaminated by peelings and cuttings. Likewise, a grocery store might set flats of ugly, but perfectly tasty, fruit on top of the dumpster to make it easy to grab, rather than dumping it in with waste that would be genuinely dangerous to eat.

But still, a lot of food gets wasted every year while people go hungry. And that’s why I was kind of tickled to read about Rubies in the Rubble, a company based on a fascinating premise: Two women reclaim fruit that would otherwise be discarded, and turn it into jams and chutneys for sale. They’re closing a loop in the system, creating a luxury item from store waste.

Given the liability issues involved, I’m assuming they don’t actually dumpster for ingredients, but instead have an agreement with stores to pick up unwanted produce at the end of the day. Still, it’s a neat system for everyone. Stores can get rid of produce they will not be able to sell because of blemishes, overstock, and other issues. They don’t have to pay for dumpstering services to take care of it, because people will come and pick it up for them. Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, are getting a source of free or cut-price ingredients for their line of foods. Win-win.

The founders of the company have a number of goals with it, and one is to highlight the amount of waste food in communities across the UK, where they are based. It’s a concept I would love to see spread to the US, for the same reason; there’s no earthly reason we should be throwing this much food away every year. Showing people the real-world value of food waste can cast it in a different light.

Furthermore, the model is also easily replicable, which is something the founders readily admit; they’re so ready to admit it that they encourage people to start their own branches. This is a fantastic idea for community-based enterprises that could allow people to start businesses with minimal resources at their disposal. Many communities have a shared commercial kitchen that rents space by the hour, the costs for setup could be low with a reclaimed food business (especially if it was combined with recycled containers, etc.), and it would allow people to establish businesses with room to grow in their areas. In a way, Rubies in the Rubble is a form of community-based development, which is pretty awesome.

Food waste is a really difficult thing to eliminate, despite the best efforts of commercial food handlers; they have no incentive to waste food, because it costs them money both in raw ingredients and disposal costs. I like this approach to the problem, which looks at it from another angle and asks how food waste could be turned into something valuable, rather than trying to eliminate food waste altogether, which may be an impossible goal. This isn’t to say that people should give up on trying to use food more efficiently…but if waste is going to happen anyway, why not make chutney out of it?!