I eat out of bins too. So what? | Katharine Hibbert

Freegans know the best use of leftover food is to eat it – why arrest a woman for picking up discarded waffles?

Sasha Hall must have thought she was in luck when she found a bin outside Tesco overflowing with food. She helped herself to packets of potato waffles, pies and ham – a small fraction of the goods that had been abandoned after the store's freezers broke down. But when police arrived at the 21-year-old's home in Essex to arrest her for "theft by finding", those waffles must have looked less lucky.

Hall now faces court. But if she committed a crime, it's one that I, like thousands of other freegans across the UK, commit daily. I have lived healthily for several years on discarded food. I take my pick from sacks full of heavily packaged sushi, bread, ready meals and fruit, all perfectly edible but dumped as they go out of date.

Police have seen me rifling through bags but have, at most, warned me to leave the area tidy when I left. Quite right too.

Of course theft by finding should be a crime – if you find someone's lost wallet, it isn't finders keepers. But it's only theft if the owner hasn't abandoned it deliberately. If an empty crisp packet is blowing around, you don't have to take it down to the police station – and putting a pile of food in a skip looks as much like abandoning it as one can imagine.

It doesn't surprise me that the supermarket manager called 999; I've been shouted at by shop assistants and manhandled by security guards, and I know of several stores that deliberately wreck the food they dump by slashing the packaging or covering it with blue dye. But it's depressing that the police didn't use their discretion not to charge Hall.

We all need to think again about food waste, of which the UK produces up to 20m tonnes a year. Every dumped meal represents unnecessary production, packaging, transport and refrigeration. If Britain buys unnecessary quantities of food in the global markets, it pushes up prices around the world. Of course it would be best if stores stopped overstocking, but waste is built into many shops' business models. If they want to offer an impression of abundance and freshness for every customer, even the last one of the day, they have to throw away the leftovers. I've eaten enough croissants from big supermarket chains' bins to know they aren't blameless.

That wasted food doesn't belong in landfill. When it's dumped, it doesn't compost – it rots anaerobically, emitting methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. But alternative ways to cope with it are also flawed. Some charities do a great job of redistributing surplus food from manufacturers to homeless shelters, but they can't collect all the food from supermarket bins. Although the quantities are large by domestic standards, and it's perfectly edible that day and probably the next, sending a refrigerated van to collect it is too slow and expensive. Waste food can no longer be turned into swill for pigs since the foot and mouth outbreak, so anaerobic digesters, which harness the energy of the heat and gas emitted as the food decomposes, are a solution that many supermarkets now rely on to claim that they create zero food waste. While that's better than sending the food to landfill, it's an inefficient way to release the energy in the food – after all, no one chooses to run their boiler on sliced bread.

The government needs to tighten waste legislation. Customers need to know the difference between a "best before" and a "use by" date ("use by" dates are for food that can easily go bad, whereas "best before" is a guide to peak tastiness), and accept that they can't have a choice between a BLT and a chicken and mayo sandwich if they go to the shop late. But until that happens, food will go unsold.

The best possible use of edible leftover food is to eat it. Of course no one should be hungry enough to have to get food from the bins. But given that we have both hunger and food waste, it's sad that, rather than turning a blind eye to scavengers, stores spoil the food or send the police to arrest a woman who wanted to feed her family a waffle or two.


Katharine Hibbert

The GuardianTramp

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