Before he left on his 3,000 mile bicycle trip to Warsaw, Frenchman Baptiste Dubanchet thought he had a pretty good idea of how much perfectly good food European supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants threw away.
But the voyage, which is intended to raise awareness about waste, has even been an eye opener for him.
“I really didn't think we were wasting as much as we are,” he told the The Local. “Even when you know about it, it's still surprising to open a garbage can and find so many potatoes, so much fruit, yogurt, sometimes 500-litre or 1000-litre bins are filled with things that are still good enough to eat.”
Dubanchet left Paris on April 15th and has passed through Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. He has also cycled all over Germany, stopping at Düsseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Berlin. His final destination is Warsaw which he aims to reach in two weeks time.
He is using the website couchsurfing.org to find accommodation and his first goal when he arrives in a town is to seek out supermarkets or bakeries that might give him food that they would otherwise throw away.
“I have to find food fast because after all the cycling I am tired and I need the energy,” he said. “Is my stomach full or empty? That is the most important thing, not what I am eating.”
The ease he has in finding food when “dumpster-diving” (pulling food out of rubbish bins) varies from place to place, with French towns landing somewhere on the spectrum between the relatively easy Germany and the rather difficult Czech Republic.
Only one out of every ten places where he asks for food actually offers him anything.
He said the general policy of the companies is not to give away free food because it would be bad for business.
Many store workers also told him what was in the garbage was inedible and that was why it had been thrown away. Yet, many of these same supermarkets keep their garbage bins inside or, if they're outside, they're locked up behind fences. Sometimes the enclosures are even topped with barbed wire, Dubanchet said.
When hunting for food to rescue, he uses a sign written in each country's language to explain the project, which he named La faim du monde (World Hunger), but says the signs do not always work. In Pilsen in the Czech Republic he had to ask 50 places for food before one said “yes.”
“The Czech Republic was the hardest, people just didn't understand the concept,” Dubanchet said. “They associate taking trash with homeless people. Finally, I was given a lot of leftover bread from a bakery which I made last for five days.”
At the start of his journey he walked into a French supermarket and explained his project and walked out with a bag of muffins, juice boxes and fruit. All of it was bound for the trash and the store manager was happy to give it away rather than see it go to waste.
“That was the only time that's happened,” Dunbanchet said, adding that he plans to make another pass at French markets on his way home. “I imagine I'll see things a bit differently after my trip.”
‘They didn’t choose to be poor’
The idea for the project came to the 25-year-old when he went travelling in Colombia, as well as South East Asia and Tahiti after he finished his masters in sustainable development. He said the extensive poverty he witnessed gave him a bad conscience.
“I was rich in poor countries. I was sad these people were so poor. These people have no choice, they did not choose to be poor, so I decided to do something to show how much good food we waste,” he said.
In his experience the people who come from poorer countries tend to be the most understanding of his project. Dubanchet said Turkish and North African shop and restaurant owners frequently wanted to give him food that would otherwise have been tossed away and sometimes food that wasn't going to be thrown away at all.
Dubanchet attributed their desire to help to their experiences of fasting during Ramadan, but also because they had come from countries where people were going hungry.
In a bid to raise awareness Dubanchet also visits schools after his 60 some kilometres of cycling per day to talk about the issue of waste and the impact it has on the environment.
“I tell them how much non-renewable resources are consumed every day and that one day these will run out,” he said.
He also shows them how much energy is used to create just one plate of food and the effect the waste the western world has on developing countries. “We import so much food, for example rice, that it puts the prices up in the poor countries and then we just end up throwing so much of it away.” he said.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Hunger Report from 2013, 842 million people in the world are starving or undernourished. Around 25,000 people die every day from starvation or hunger-related causes.
Europe against waste
Dubanchet chose to undertake his mission this year to coincide with the European Year against Food Waste, which is being led by the European Parliament.
By making changes in labelling food and providing support to sustainable food production systems, the European Parliament hopes to halve food waste in the EU by 2025.
The FAO says that every year roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted.
They estimated that even if just a quarter of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
And the philosophy of Dubanchet’s trip is “less is more”.
“The project has been a way for me to protest,” he said. “If we produced less, food would become more precious to us.”