James eats most of his meals from food collected in bins. But is ‘dumpster diving’ legal?

Jamie Roberts By Jamie Roberts Jun17,2024
As the clock ticks over to midnight, while most of us sleep, James (not his real name) forages through bins behind supermarkets in Sydney’s inner-west.
He is “dumpster diving” — searching for food that has been deemed unsellable. He and his girlfriend pick out ready-to-eat meals, tinned food, bread, fresh fruit, vegetables, chocolates: all thrown out by supermarkets.
James, 28, can barely afford to buy groceries and cover his phone bill after paying his $300 weekly rent. The shadow of the — he says he has $90,000 in HECS debt to pay off.
Before dumpster diving, he would budget for low-cost meals, resorting to cheap foods like lentils, or skipping meals entirely.

“I just got into the habit of eating less often,” he said.

Close up shot of pumpkins, sausages, bananas, coleslaw, burger buns and other food items all in their packages

Among the finds were bananas, pumpkins, sausages and entire packaged meals. Credit: Simon Eden

But since starting the regular dumpster dives six weeks ago, he’s found he can mostly get by from what he recovers, and estimates he saves about $50 a week in food bills.

“It’s comforting knowing that if I really do need food I can just go and find quite a bit of decent food [dumpster diving].”

He said a lot of the products he finds are in perfectly good condition.
“More than 50 per cent [is edible],” he said.

“If it was still in the supermarket, I would have no qualms buying it.”

If it was still in the supermarket, I would have no qualms buying it.


More young people than ever are going hungry

Foodbank, a hunger relief charity, found in its 2023 food hunger report that half of all renters are struggling in some form to feed themselves.
Foodbank’s general manager of strategic partnerships, Ian Laing, said the report reveals a “huge leap” in the demand for their service.
“Half of all renters in Australia are struggling to put a meal on the table. A big factor which drove up that number was younger people who are generally in a fairly decent position income wise, and that’s a really alarming stat,” Laing said.

He said cost of living increases, such as rent, bills, vehicle costs and groceries are all contributing to why young people are sacrificing meals.

beside a bin lies several cardboard boxes packed with packaged goods including cereal and chips

Often food is found thrown out in its original packaging. Credit: Simon Eden

“When you apply this kind of rate of increase across all aspects of expenditure, then something has to give.”

Laing said he’s not surprised people are turning to dumpster diving to make ends meet.

“I think the reality of people in a situation where you’re struggling to see where your next meal is coming from, people are desperate, and that leads to people doing what they feel they need to do.”
The report states those experiencing food insecurity for the first time are increasingly younger — with 81 per cent under the age of 45.

“Households are now having to make really horrible choices about what and when they eat, and that’s talking about reducing their food intake overall,” Laing said.

“People are skipping meals, even going entire days without eating.
“That’s really heartbreaking for lots of households because they’re just struggling to get enough on the table to feed all of the members of the household.”
The Foodbank report noted a third of all mortgage holders are struggling to put a meal on their table.
, and found that “many” young Australians and lower-income households are spending up to “one-quarter of their net income on groceries”.

A Senate committee is also conducting an inquiry into supermarket prices, with its final report due on 7 May.

That’s really heartbreaking for lots of households because they’re just struggling to get enough on the table to feed all of the members of the household.

Ian Laing, Foodbank

Why is so much food thrown away?

Australia has specific requirements on when food can and can’t be eaten.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand say foods with a use-by date “should not be eaten after the use-by date and can’t legally be sold after this date because they may pose a health or safety risk”.

Food Standards said in a statement that under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, food businesses must produce food that is safe and suitable to eat, and must “ensure food waste does not accumulate in places other than garbage areas in the premises”.


Source: SBS

Meanwhile, food with best-before, rather than use-by dates can safely be eaten “for a while after”, however “may have lost some quality”.

Foods that have a best-before date can legally be sold after that date as long as the food is “fit for human consumption”.

Australian households waste 7.6 million tonnes of food worth $19.3 billion each year, according to a report from the Australia Institute last year. It says that works out between $2,000 and $2,500 worth of wasted food per household.

Discarded green vegetables

An Australian institute report revealed the nation wastes 7.6 million tonnes of food every year. Source: SBS / The Feed

Retail profits from food waste

The report said major food retailers including Coles and Woolworths have a strong incentive to resist policy changes that reduce food waste, such as removing best-before labels from products that don’t need them.
“Based on average industry profit margins, food retailers make $1.2 billion profit from this waste,” the report said.

“Whether the food is consumed or wasted is beside the point as far as supermarkets are concerned. But reforms to reduce the amount of food people purchase — and in turn waste — will inevitably lead to reduced profits.”

Opinion polling for the report found a majority of Australians support regulatory reforms to reduce food waste, “including, notably, overwhelming support (78 per cent) for reforming use-by and best-before-date labelling and 72 per cent support for relaxed cosmetic standards”.
The Feed received statements from both Coles and Woolworths — each company says it partners with food rescue organisations to save and supply food that can’t be sold, but is safe to eat.
Coles says every store “has a food wastage solution available”. Woolworths noted it’s “also good business” to work hard to reduce food waste.

In 2017, the Australian government launched the National Food Waste Strategy plan — with a goal of halving Australia’s food waste by 2030. The plan set out that one cause for food waste was “confusion” over best-before and use-by dates.

Is dumpster diving legal?

To put it simply, there’s a “grey area” around legality, depending on the state, the location, and even down to the type of bin itself, as criminal law specialist Andrew Tiedt explains.
“There are certainly situations where the conduct would clearly be illegal — in particular where you have to go onto private property to access the bin,” Tiedt said.

Under criminal law, this would constitute “trespass” — but there are exceptions.

“However, once the bin’s on the verge, it is, to say the least, a grey area.
“It depends in particular on what kind of bin it is — whether it’s a council bin or a private bin. But it also depends on whose bin it is and what it’s there for.”
Councils across Australia have different laws, and Tiedt points out that there are bins on the “verge” of council land and public private land, which “complicates” things.

“If you go onto property at the back of Woolworths and you don’t have an ‘applied licence’ to be there as you would if you went in the front to go shopping, you’re trespassing — that’s illegal.”

Reselling the “junk”

While food is James’ priority, 61-year-old Simon Eden, who lives in Adelaide, claims he has found a bounty of high-value items, including nine smart TVs in working order from dumpster dives.

A man smiles in a hat and t shirt that reads "best dumpster diver ever" while holding a thumbs up on a busy street during the day

Simon Eden has been dumpster diving for over 40 years. Credit: Simon Eden

“[My house] is full of stuff [from dumpster diving] … I’ve got to start selling it on eBay.”

“Rich corporations think twice about recycling so they throw them out.”

While Eden is proud of his stash, others who dumpster dive said on Facebook groups that they feel ashamed to talk of their activities when dating.

Two large TVs unplugged with a cable dangling outside a blue bin skip titled "general waste"

On top of food, Eden has also found clothing and several televisions through dumpster diving. Credit: Simon Eden

One user wrote they “feel embarrassed about what I do … I love what [dumpster diving] is, but hate how it looks”.

But others embrace dumpster diving and the potential for positive environmental impacts.

“I used to be embarrassed to admit it, until I realised half the things people complimented in my house came from hard rubbish. I now love telling people I saved stuff from landfill,” a commenter wrote in reply.

Jamie Roberts

By Jamie Roberts

Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist with a focus on uncovering corruption and advocating for social justice. With over a decade of experience in the field, Jamie's work has been instrumental in bringing about positive change in various communities.

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2 thoughts on “James eats most of his meals from food collected in bins. But is ‘dumpster diving’ legal?”
  1. As a society, we should be more compassionate towards individuals like James who resort to dumpster diving out of necessity. It’s concerning that someone like him struggles to afford basic necessities while also burdened with significant debt. We need to address the root causes of food insecurity rather than criminalizing those trying to survive.

  2. Is ‘dumpster diving’ legal in Sydney? I’m surprised by the amount of edible food being thrown out!

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