The other evening, I tweeted about H&M and Wal-Mart destroying usable garments before trashing them, presumably so folks wouldn't dumpster dive for the free clothes. A friend responded that she had heard about a big food chain that pours bleach on perfectly edible baked goods that they're tossing into the dumpster at the end of the day.
A little digging revealed that at least the latter is a pretty common practice. But why would retailers go to such lengths to destroy irregulars and day old food?
The most common justification seems to be curbing liability. According to an article on TampaBay.com:
Stores have good reason to discourage Dumpster divers: If you get hurt while scavenging, the store could be in a lot more trouble than you. In 1992, two 9-year-old boys died from exposure to toxic chemicals after playing in the trash bin at Durex Industries plant in Tampa. A Durex executive pleaded guilty to a charge of storing waste illegally and had to pay each boy's family $400,000.
While that might explain the practice to some extent, I don't think it liability is a "good reason" at all.
Why not donate the clothing or food to charitable organizations that need it? That would not only help keep divers out, but it would divert those resources to folks who really need them. Stores could even brag on their donations. The crazy PR payoff seems like it would be more than worth the effort of coordinating with a local Salvation Army or food bank.
It's not like this food that's being tossed is rotten. The same TampaBay.com article quotes a grocery store spokesman:
"If you're smart — and they sound like they're smart — you can use our own standards against us," says Sweetbay spokesman Steve Smith. "Food safety is No. 1 at any retailer. Because of that, we will always put expiration dates that are before when the product actually would expire. You're always going to give yourself some padding. So they're smart in that you absolutely can eat that product — some products."
Another friend I was chatting with brought up this excellent question, "Wouldn't there be equal liability from someone eating/touching your bleach-soaked food?" I searched high and low for an answer to this but came up with nothing. Does anyone have thoughts on this? The only conclusion I can come to is that these businesses toss these goods because it's easier than donating and destroy them so no one can get them for free.
The thing that gets me is the mentality that it's OK to waste food and clothing in this way. When you get down to it, there's no good reason to waste food when folks are hungry or destroy garments when people are cold.
All of this is a harsh reminder that we live in a disposable society. I'm sure that these people aren't thinking, "Yes, let's keep clothing and food from people who can't afford them." These practices are a side effect of a society that doesn't value materials.
Next time you're at a grocery or clothing store that you frequent, you could try politely asking a manager how they handle their waste. If stores see that their customers care about this sort of thing, they might think twice before dousing that trash bag in bleach. I think the trick here is to ask in a way that doesn't come off as preachy, just concerned. Maybe framing it like, "I have a crazy question for you..."
I feel like this is one of those scenarios where our wallets are almost as powerful as our voices. Big companies aren't going to take responsibility for their waste unless there's a consequence, and taking our business elsewhere sends a message.
Better yet, we can take our dollars to locally owned and smaller businesses. Get to know the folks who make the things we buy.
My husband and I get veggies delivered from a local co-op where we pay monthly. One month, I forgot to leave a check and sent an apologetic email to the woman who runs the co-op. Her response? "I wasn't too worried. If someone needed the veggies badly enough to take them, they can have them."
That's what I'm talkin' about!
What are your thoughts about all of this? I'm feeling a little bit disillusioned. I knew there was a lot of waste in the food and clothing industries, but the practice of destroying usable goods just strikes me as so vindictive in a way. Is that a total overreaction?