Sustainability Spotlight: An Urban Harvester
What’s your story? How was An Urban Harvester started?
My story of An Urban Harvester begins at my 3 local supermarket dumpsters nestled in a densely packed Northern European city. After living off perfectly edible, discarded food for close to a year, I started looking more deeply into the modern Food System and I was utterly shocked - yet not overly surprised - when I read the statistic that between a third and a half of all food produced on this planet is wasted. This is crazy! I just remember thinking to myself “if this isn’t a sign that our global agricultural system is out of control then I’m not sure what is. “
So, after doing a lot more Urban Harvesting (aka “dumpster diving”) and carrying out plenty more reading and research about the globalized, industrialized Food System as part of a masters degree in climate change science, once I graduated, I decided to tell the story of the global pandemic that is food waste via my 3 local dumpsters by sharing with the world on Instagram a photograph of my daily Urban Harvest.
Can you tell us about food waste and how urban harvesting can combat this issue?
I think it’s important to be fundamentally clear that food waste is a very complex issue. It’s a phenomenon that is happening at every single stage of the food chain, and the particular stage at which there are unusually large food waste hotspots varies considerably depending on which region you find yourself on Earth. In sub-Saharan African countries, for example, the lack of post-harvest storage facilities is particularly problematic. Better access to fairer credit schemes would enable local entrepreneurs to develop and implement appropriate technology to allow rural communities to process and preserve the excess of their crops, see Lawrence Okettayot who has developed the crucial technological device that is the @sparky.dryer.
In the wealthier, more urbanized nations, like the USA, Canada, and European countries, food waste is happening more at the retail, business, and individual household level. Over the last few decades, an ever-greater share of citizens are working cities and living busier lives. Long story short, it seems that individuals are unfortunately throwing out both their money, and therefore their time that they spent earning that money, by wasting a considerable amount of food. This is a great shame, and I sincerely hope that people rectify their ways sooner rather than later.
An Urban Harvester’s focus is obviously more on the retail side of things. What I have learned over the last 18 months is that supermarkets must factor in a certain percentage of Food Waste in their business models, and deem this acceptable. A business cannot waste food and non-edible products on the scale that I witness on a daily basis without factoring this is in. It’s absurd.
Since the end of the Second World War, supermarkets have gained an ever-increasing influence on the global Food System, these companies significantly influence global markets. I have come to the slightly sinister conclusion that major supermarket companies – those that waste food on a large scale - are very likely cheating consumers by overcharging on food products by fixing prices higher than they realistically ought to be relative to the demand that actually exists. One of the basic laws of economics is that the price of a commodity is more or less at an equilibrium between the supply and demand that exists in the market. The supply and demand naturally vary over time and so sellers (i.e. supermarkets) ought to fluctuate their prices based on these trends (e.g. seasonal prices based on harvests). If a supermarket is found to be dumping 157 packet of bacon – which is indeed past its ‘best before date’ – then the supermarket has likely charged too high a price in relation to what a consumer seems acceptable. Yes, supermarkets may lose money compared to what they paid for that product, but that isn’t the consumers’ problem.
At the end of the day, neoliberal capitalism is about competition between companies to give consumers the best price possible. If certain companies go out of business then so be it, that’s the laws of the system we live under. Dumping out 157 packs of perfect bacon is immoral, and governments that allow supermarkets to dump these products out by facilitating the processing of this waste are, in fact, colluding in this unacceptable and shocking phenomenon. It’s worth remembering that the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has once again found that we live in a world where 820 million people are malnourished.
Please tell us more about your cross-country bicycle trek and living on supermarket food “waste”
Bicycles have always been a passion of mine. I simply adore jumping on my saddle and going for a ride. To me, there is almost no better start to the day than a refreshing bicycle ride. After my first year at university in Scotland, along with four friends of mine, I cycled the famous Land’s End-to-John O’Groats route which crosses the length of the island of Great Britain. At 1,000 miles, it was a brilliant introduction to the wonderful world of bicycle trekking.
Fast-forward five years, by now I had decided to ramp up the adventure level: this time I was hoping to cross the USA by bicycle unsupported with 35 people from all over the world with the overarching quest of adventure cycling whilst learning about many different facets of what a sustainable life might look like. Luckily for me, we had two brilliant leaders who came up with the idea in the first place and planned the overwhelming majority of the ambitious trip: Rob Greenfield and his partner at the time, Cheryl Davies.
Rather unsurprisingly, it was a life-changing trip for all 35 participants. Once my year of Urban Harvesting comes to an end in January 02020, I will be revealing many of the things I learned on that most exciting of trips, so stay tuned for a Millennial European’s perspective on crossing modern America by bicycle in the early months of 02020.
What is your process when collecting supermarket waste?
My process of harvesting waste from my 3 local supermarket dumpsters is actually remarkably simple. First thing to note is that European cities are designed very differently from the majority of North American cities. They are far more densely populated, and are far more geared toward citizens using public transport and cycling, as well as walking around. This means that there are far more small-to-medium supermarket stores scattered around town. The cherry on top is that many European supermarket dumpsters are very much on the accessible side of things—meaning that all citizens are free to access the organic waste.
So, every day, I go out to my 3 local supermarkets and go check out their dumpsters on the back side of the store. Sometimes I’m unlucky as the binmen may have just been, but the vast majority of the time, I come back with a lot of great food (and other discarded goodies!). If I’m feeling energetic, I’ll go out harvesting twice a day. Once in the early afternoon, and once in the evening after closing time. My experience has shown that afternoons are great for fresh fruit and vegetables, whilst evening time is best for the more unusual and more expensive commodities, like coffee, coconut oil and balsamic vinegar.
How much food have you saved from doing this (in $)? How much non-edible (HHB) items?
So far, I’ve harvested goods that have been worth $6,084 (equivalent to €5,430 and £4,888).
Non-edible items are surprisingly more common than one might think, although judging from my North American counterparts, dumpster divers there find a far greater abundance of non-edible goods.
Has most of the feedback to your account been positive? Are you looking to inspire others to adopt this habit, or just go about informing people about the negligent practices of supermarkets and stores?
I suppose it’s a bit of both. I am very much aware that many countries in the West lock their dumpsters and make them very inaccessible indeed. This is a great tragedy. Having said that, there are many countries where dumpsters are super accessible and may just be a case of consumers never having ever thought of checking their local dumpsters. I certainly encourage people to have a good old browse around their supermarkets. One never knows how much one might save, unless one checks their dumpsters.
My main goal with An Urban Harvester is to use this platform to fully blow the lid off Supermarkets’ outrageous Food Waste practices by sharing other Urban Harvesters’ Harvests from across the Western world. The scale of this Food Waste phenomenon sometimes sends shivers down my spine. As an FYI, there are 37,000 supermarkets in the USA, for example.
For someone who wants to cut down on their individual food waste, would you recommend them to become an urban harvester? Do you have other tips to share?
As I said, if folks have access to their local supermarket dumpsters— then why not? It’s always worth checking in with local legislation as this varies hugely depending on where you are in the world. American dumpster divers on Instagram appear to suggest that harvesting from dumpsters that are accessible to the public is very much on the legal side of things. I never recommend that people take any unnecessary risks. If unsure, have a good browse on the internet for local online dumpster diving communities. There are so many resources these days!
My other tip to anybody who wishes to reduce their individual food waste is cook from scratch more. And I mean from scratch. Set aside an afternoon, if you can afford to, to batch cook for the week ahead. This will enable you to cook great, healthy, tasty food for many days ahead, saving you significant money in the long run. People ought to try and do what they can with the resources they have available to them.
If you want to source great food, whilst also supporting local farmers, start purchasing some, or all, your foods from your local Community Supported Agriculture schemes.
Urban harvesting is a fantastic way of putting it, what do you say to people who look down upon the idea of “dumpster diving”?
It’s so vital to change the overall perception on Food Waste. There are so many amazing resources that are being mindlessly thrown away. Every day, if you have a quick browse on Instagram’s #dumpsterdiving, there are scores of people all across the planet that are sharing the food that they are finding in their local dumpsters. You have to see it to believe it.
My goal is to harvest, process, enjoy and make great use of as many fantastic resources that I can. Many of these commodities have traveled from the other side of the planet!
For those who are worried about strangers staring, do not worry. Cities are so anonymous in this day and age that the vast majority of people who might catch a glimpse of you harvesting some tasty dumpster goods will very likely never see you again.
Is this act illegal? Laws might differ between the UK and the US but curious if you knew any of the nuanced legalities of it
I’m not entirely sure on the specifics. I urge all readers to look up local legislation on this depending on where they are located. Please be responsible. I dumpster dived all the way across the USA with no problem whatsoever. I highly recommend practicing patience, politeness, and cooperation with anybody who might disagree with your Urban Harvesting.
How else do you practice sustainability?
I try to practice sustainability in all aspects of my life, although I’m less extreme than I once used to be. At the end of the day, in my opinion, there is only so much individuals can do and I firmly believe that drastic systemic changes are required if modern society is to have any chance of living within the Earth’s 9 planetary ecological boundaries that have been documented by Earth scientists.
But I do try to cook almost all my meals from scratch. For example, just a few months ago, I bought a personal mill so that I could start milling my own grains in order to be less dependent on supermarkets. I now source grain, like wheat berries, straight from my local biodynamic farmer meaning that I can mill my own flour whenever I want bake sourdough bread.
Any other things you would like to share?
An Urban Harvester is an anonymous project. Me as a person, as well as my location. This is because Supermarket Food Waste is a phenomenon that is happening all across Western countries so this is why I do not want to make this project a local one. As for my personal anonymity, 16 weeks ago, the overwhelming majority of An Urban Harvester’s following was of the opinion that this project would be far more powerful if it were to remain anonymous for the entire of 02019 as the work & photographs speak for themselves. So this was a group decision, which I am fully behind.