It’s almost 11pm when a white Mercedes van pulls off the main road into an empty lane. That’s a man’s weird way of getting groceries.
It is approximately 10:45 p.m. on a Tuesday evening in July when a large white Mercedes van pulls off the main road and onto an empty side street.
For the driver, his destination is the back exit of a grocery store in Sydney’s trendy Inner West. To be more precise, the two by one meter industrial bin.
For example, 31-year-old William Smith* gets 75 percent of his food by dumpster diving two or three times a week.
“I was introduced to dumpster diving by a lady who did it for financial reasons while I was living in Adelaide,” he tells news.com.au on condition of anonymity.
“I was so impressed by how imaginative and intelligent it was. Now I have friends and we go dumpster diving together.”
When dumpster diving, lift the lid
In one night, Mr. Smith visits two to three supermarket bins. It starts around 10:30 p.m., about half an hour after the supermarkets have closed and the staff have gone home.
He persevered despite the wet weather in Sydney but was gifted a rare break from rain that evening.
Mature in his routine, Mr. Smith approaches his first trash can of the night without hesitation.
He pulls on a pair of light blue rubber gloves before opening the trash can’s unlocked lid.
“I’m a little embarrassed about the gloves because most people don’t wear gloves,” he says, not entirely jokingly.
Anticlimatic, one bag is filled with storage rubbish, but another hides an abundance of bread of various shapes and sizes. Mr Smith takes two loaves and puts them in his reusable bag.
“Other people have given me the confidence to just push past the expiration date,” he says.
“If there is meat inside and the package is bloated, then that is a sign that gassing has occurred.
“I also smell stuff and wash everything to the point that it’s cleaner than what you can get in the store.”
Scattered around the trash can are also convenience foods like discounted packs of brown rice and curry, and a fried chicken and veg option.
Mr Smith takes three and leaves the rest.
“Some people would take anything, I’m just picky,” he says.
He later explains that he has a somewhat sensitive stomach that can be prone to minor upsets.
“I know people who are extremely past the expiration date and dump in the dumpster most days, but they don’t have a problem,” he adds.
Tonight the star of the catch was a dozen packets of hot smoked sea trout and six packets of smoked salmon. All have at least five days left until the expiration date, others more than two weeks.
When it comes to dumpster diving, however, all that glitters is not gold.
“Sometimes when you have a batch of obsolete product, there can be contamination issues or something like that,” explains Mr. Smith.
“I like finding things that are out of date in a day or two, but I go home and google to see if there’s been a problem with that.”
“My budget would be gone”
For Mr Smith, he says he’s been able to make a good living from dumpster diving and is eating relatively normally.
Eggs and bread are regularly found, and although we only visited one bin tonight – the presence of warehouse workers at a second larger supermarket shortened our trip – he usually takes home meat and vegetables as well.
“For me, I don’t buy animal products because of the extreme cruelty that is practiced in the industry,” he says.
Mr. Smith will also supplement his dumpster trips with non-perishable staples like pasta, rice and some condiments he buys at the store.
For Mr. Smith, 2022 was the first year he used dumpster diving as his primary method of sourcing groceries. Before that he did it “from time to time”.
Despite earning income from various odd jobs at Uber Eats and trading at a sports bar, rising food prices were a factor.
“If I spent that money on groceries, my budget would be gone. I’m just an individual, but I’d be screwed if I had a family or kids to support,” he says.
Despite this year being riddled with supply chain issues and food shortages, grocery stores and supermarkets have remained steady with usable leftovers.
“All the dumpster divers I spoke to said they hadn’t noticed the cost of living (which affects supplies). They’re doing pretty well.”
“There was still a lot of waste.”
In Sydney, the dumpster diving community is small but vibrant.
A popular Facebook group has more than 4400 members. Users regularly share plentiful loot of rescued groceries. Photos show packs of chocolate, bread and fresh produce spilling from dining tables. Offers to share and messages asking for advice and location tips are common and enthusiastically responded to.
While the practice is niche, there are rules, explains Mr Smith. The rules, set by a “well-known” figure in Sydney’s dumpster diving community, state that divers must be quiet, leave bins and surrounding areas in a clean state, and leave an area when told to do so.
“When someone confronts me, I have to remember that if I’m rude to them, it will backfire on all dumpster divers,” he says.
In addition to supermarket bins, residential bins around apartment complexes can also be a source of high-quality goods.
“I went through a phase of collecting stuff like suitcases and knife sets. Anything I could find, like small furniture and lamps,” he says.
“They would just list them on Facebook Marketplace for $10 or $20. If you do that 40 hours a week, you could maybe make $500-$600.”
Although exploring them can be a failure, this is how he found one of his favorite items – a black waterproof jacket.
“Sometimes when people move house or get divorced, they throw away a lot of useful things.”
“Not a viable option for everyone”
For Mr Smith, although he is able to make a living diving in dumpsters, he says the practice is indicative of Australia’s larger poverty problem.
“Dumpster diving isn’t a viable option for everyone,” he said.
“Three million Australians live in poverty, including 731,000 children. That should be emphasized when discussing dumpster diving.
“Australians should pressure the government to make that change and get people out of poverty and the only thing people are asking for is that people who are on welfare get lifted out of poverty.
According to the Foodbank’s 2021 Hunger Report, one in six adults did not have enough to eat in the past year, while 1.2 million children suffered from hunger in the past year.
The reach of food insecurity is also wide. The issue affects people of all ages, income brackets, jobs and places of residence. Surprisingly, full-time workers were the most represented age group at 37 percent of respondents.
The most common reason for food insecurity was that people couldn’t afford groceries due to unexpected expenses or high bills, a reason 35 percent of respondents agreed.
It’s just after midnight when Mr. Smith finishes his weekday dumpster dive session. By this time, even the busiest parking lots have emptied and the streets are empty. The main indicators of Sydney’s busy population are the fading living room and bedroom lights, illuminated by nearby apartment blocks.
While Mr. Smith has groceries for the next few days, he will revisit his inner-city trash can route later in the week.
“Some people love the activity, others just get addicted to finding things and having the adventure, but for me it’s all about saving money,” he says.
*Not the real name of the source.
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