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A trend over necessity: Dumpster diving in Aarhus

Dumpster diving


Freeganism remains an option for the very few, and some retailers are fighting it. Others are forbidden, and are looking for ways around it.  Cristina Belda and Erika Astudillo have looked at the issue in one city in Denmark.

This is the first article of a two-part series. Read part two here.

Every day Kristifer Szabo and Mikkel Vind put their coats on, pick up their backpacks and some extra plastic bags before walking to the closest supermarket – the typical routine that any person would follow before going grocery shopping in Denmark. However, these two friends do not enter the supermarket to get their food nor do they have a shopping list. What they find in the dumpster outside the supermarket will help provide their meals for the following days.

This is not the story of two youngsters who can’t afford their food, or even someone excluded from society or living in poverty. It is about a lifestyle chosen by them. Kristifer, a Canadian student, and Mikkel, a Dane who is working while waiting for the start of his university classes, are dumpster divers. They, as many others, have chosen this way of life not purely for saving money or for social consciousness regarding food waste, but because they “get a rush over it”.


Food found by Kristifer and Mikkel in one f the dumpsters in Aarhus
Food found by Kristifer and Mikkel in one of the dumpsters in Aarhus

The question is why people find it interesting or fun to look for food in the garbage, in a country which is acutely aware of reducing its food waste, as well as providing high living standards, may result paradoxical. “Why do they do this?  They do not need it. Is it possible to find edible food in a dumpster?” are the first thoughts that come to our Spanish and Ecuadorian minds. In answer to this, Mikkel opens his fridge and shows beef, sausages and many vegetables in perfect condition, all collected during the past days.

The same food after cleaning, ready to be shared with Mikkel and Kristifer’s dormmates.

Denmark wastes around 541,000 tons of food every year, equivalent to 8.4 billion kroner (1125 million euro) approximately. In Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, people seem aware of that fact. Dumpster diving is a frequent topic of conversation within the university sphere.  Besides, once someone hears that among that waste it is possible to find cheese, salmon, fruits and vegetables in good conditions, many people want -at least- to try it. Others fully adopt dumpster diving as a lifestyle.

A well established trend

A study titled “Beyond Desperation: Motivations for Dumpster Diving for Food in Vancouver, Food and Foodways: Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment” published at Simon Fraser University, Canada, in 2013, defines dumpster diving as a “cultural phenomenon of a particular historical moment when global food systems have reached high degrees of market efficiency, but are not necessarily meeting all people’s food needs”. That efficiency of the modern world has made it possible to have a large and steady supply of edible food waste that can be found inside these waste receptacles, and nowadays, it has become a trend not only in Denmark, but also in Norway, Canada and Australia.

In a world where organic food or home farms are becoming ways of getting a closer relationship between people and their food, dumpster diving is apparently another approach.  “It is like being in a different time in which you have to find your food, it is kind of returning to a simpler life in a way”, said Kristifer while eating an apple he found the night before.

Normally there is more than one group running from one dumpster to another: some even bring bikes and flashlights for a better harvest. In Denmark it is legal to go into the dumpsters that are not locked and take the food from inside.

For some people, dumpster diving is a synonym of sharing. For example, when Kristifer and Mikkel bring food from the dumpster to their dorm, they offer their friends some food for free. Besides, they admit that it can become an addiction. “The other day before I went to bed I was restless. I just had to take a look”, confesses Mikkel. “It is a chemical rush every time we open a dumpster; it is like finding money in an edible currency”.


“You cannot have a free ride in a taxi, but suddenly you discover that you can eat for free and that is a reason in itself”, says Kristifer. This practice is linked to a larger concept called freeganism.  It is defined as an “alternative strategy for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources”. Eating discarded groceries, wearing second-hand clothing, and furnishing homes with rejected furniture are some practices of this group of people, originating in New York and spreading across the world. For many freegans, it is a nexus for anti-consumerist and sustainability discourses.

For Jessica Aschemann-Witzel, associate professor of at the Centre for research on customer relations in the food sector and part of the Marketing and Sustainability research group (MAPP) at Aarhus University, it is not necessarily ideology that is behind this. However, “those that participate in any communication about it are those that would like to create awareness of the problem of food waste”.

Wealthiest countries, wealthiest garbage

According to the Environmental Data Compendium (OECD), Denmark is the third country in the world that wastes the most per person, with 660 kg. per capita – only behind the United States and Australia. Other Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland also lead in food waste as well as in dumpster diving.

Danish supermarkets, mini-markets, discount stores and supermarkets create 45,676 tons of food waste per year. The majority of the food waste in the wholesale and retail sector comes from fruits, vegetables, bread and yoghurt. Half of this amount is edible, according to the report “Addressing food waste in Denmark” published by Food Policy Journal in October 2014.

Kristifier and Mikkel comment that by dumpster diving they can find better food than what they would normally buy. Kristifer  says that he couldn’t afford buying salmon very often. In the last trip to the dumpster he found plenty packages of salmon, only one day after the expiration date. “I put them in the freezer and they will be perfect”, he assures us. The Eat by Date organisation provides a guide that indicates that salmon, for instance, is edible two days after the expiry date if it is in the fridge, and up to six months in the freezer.

When we judge by its appearance  

The social, cultural and family influences on food choice and food handling determine which parts of food are edible or not, and social norms on appropriate food and eating-related behaviour. Bananas that have some black spots, not red enough apples or a soft orange might not be desired by many people. This is reason enough for supermarkets to throw away a lot of food. Heads and employees from the two biggest supermarket chains, Dansk (Fotex and Netto) and Coop (Rema, Fakta, Kvickly), agree.

Alexander (preferred not to give his last name), a supermarket worker in Aarhus explains the supermarket’s way of throwing food: “I don’t know for sure when a product is not edible. As my previous boss told me: if my mother won’t buy it, I shouldn’t sell it. The customers won’t buy it if it is ugly to look at”.

What Alexander says is not far from reality. The study from Food Policy explains that within the European Union, food waste is generally understood to mean all of the foodstuffs discarded from the food supply chain still perfectly edible and fit for human consumption. These products are ultimately eliminated and disposed of for economic or aesthetic reasons, or because of the impending ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date.

It is important to remember that the “sell by” date is a note to retailers about when to take out a product from the shelves. It’s still safe to use after this date, but supermarkets generally remove it because consumers will not trust it. Milk, for example, is typically good for as long as five days after the sell-by date. The “best before” date indicates when quality and taste start to decline, although the product is still edible after this date. Pre-packed meat can last in the fridge 7 to 10 days, and in the freezer up to 8 months. The same with smoked ham. Apples can last at least for two weeks.

In city’s dumpsters, food that expires in one or two days can easily be found. In the case of fruits and vegetables without any of these labels, dumpster divers also use their common sense to judge them.


> > Read part two of our dumpster diving feature


Words and images: Erika Astudillo and Cristina Belda

Lead image by Shamus Dollin 

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