Dumpster diving teacher lived for two months on food salvaged from bins

Laura Hampson
·5-min read
Íde Mhic Gabhann began dumpster diving in 2017 (PA)
Íde Mhic Gabhann began dumpster diving in 2017 (PA)

An Irish teacher says she regularly goes dumpster diving to help reduce food waste – and has even lived for two months entirely on grub salvaged from supermarket bins.

Íde Mhic Gabhann, 39, from Dublin is “horrified” by the idea of perfectly good food being thrown away and normally goes through supermarket dumpsters weekly to rescue fruit, veg, meat, ready meals and even fancy chocolates.

The secondary school maths teacher says "freeganism" – the practice of reclaiming and eating discarded food – adds up money-wise too, with her two months of full-on bin diving in February 2019 and February 2020 saving her around £700.

Mhic Gabhann adds: “I talked about it quite openly at work. Sometimes I’d bring in stuff and I’d leave a sign saying, ‘Free doughnuts – these are dumpster-dived’.

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“Some people were really disgusted about it. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea – I’ve had people tell me they think it’s disgusting.”

Mhic Gabhann says her husband Ciarán, 38, is comfortable with her dumpster diving – but her late-night foraging has caused others to feel sympathy for her.

“I’ve had a homeless person come and try to share their food with me when they saw me dumpster diving. I just explained I was saving it from being wasted,” she adds.

“I have shared food with homeless people in the past but would always let them know where it came from.”

Some of the items Mhic Gabhann has salvaged (PA)
Some of the items Mhic Gabhann has salvaged (PA)

Mhic Gabhann first came across freeganism when she began trying to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle in 2016, and says the reason she goes dumpster diving is simply to live as ethically as possible by reducing the food waste she and her husband generate.

“When you think about how much food waste there is, and you know you’re making a small dent in it, that really motivates you,” she says.

“Ultimately, it’s the same food as what’s on the supermarket shelves. I want to show people the amount of waste there is and how avoidable it is.”

She adds that the worst thing you may find is squished yoghurt or cocoa powder that has drifted throughout the bin. “You’re not sifting through normal rubbish – it is just supermarket food,” she says.

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Mhic Gabhann started dumpster diving in 2017 when she joined a local group who would do it together.

“Supermarkets will often have their bins in enclosed spaces. But we found one where they were putting their bins out for collection on the street at 10pm and we had an hour before the rubbish was picked up,” she explains.

“It takes two people to lift the lid off the huge wheelie bins that contain most of the food waste and check the contents. But the vegetable bins are for composting and are normal-sized so they’re easy for me to access on my own.”

Through 2018, Mhic Gabhann honed her skills, gathering fresh fruits and vegetables, pre-packaged sandwiches and snacks, and even roast dinner ready meals.

“Normally, I won’t buy animal products, but I will eat them if I’ve got them from a dumpster,” she adds. “You’re not driving consumption and you’re saving something that would have otherwise been wasted, from being thrown out.”

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The veggie treats she finds include near perfect fruit and vegetables.

“Sometimes they get new orders coming in, so they clear out the old ones or throw out a whole tray of cauliflowers or grapes as one of them has black dots on,” she says.

“With staples and long-life things like rice or pasta, it’s often because the package has been damaged.”

In February 2019, Mhic Gabhann decided she was ready to take on the challenge of only eating food she had rescued from dumpsters, for the whole month.

“We usually spend around 400 euros [£350] on food a month for the two of us so we saved a lot of money – and stopped a lot of food going to waste,” she says.

“We ate a lot of fruit and vegetables, pre-cut fruit salads, and basics. It was tricky at times because we were only eating salvaged foods so we couldn’t even buy something like soy sauce to eat with a meal of rice and vegetables.”

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It’s not just fruit and vegetables – there’s often chocolates too.

“After Christmas, all the Christmas chocolates get thrown in the bin, even though they’re not out of date for six months,” she says. “I’ve eaten an awful lot of chocolate reindeers!

“Sometimes even before Christmas, they clear the ordinary chocolates so they can sell the Christmas stuff because it’s more attractive looking. And it’s the same thing after Halloween and Easter.”

While the pandemic has meant putting dumpster diving on hold, Mhic Gabhann still goes foraging when she can.

“Food waste is a problem and it does need to be dealt with,” she says. “I think we as a society need to change. We need to say that, when we go into a Tesco at 10pm, we don’t need to see fully stocked shelves of doughnuts – it’s fine if they ran out earlier in the day.

“We have to accept what is available when it’s available, rather than wanting every vegetable and every type of bread there when we go shopping. I want to focus on showing people how we can stop food waste before things are thrown out.”

Watch: Freddy Freegan lives his extreme minimalist lifestyle by dumpster diving for all his food

Additional reporting by PA.

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