The first time I stuck my head in a wheelie bin behind the Tesco in Durham city centre, over 10 years ago, it happened quite unexpectedly.

I had woken up in the university library’s cafe. My nap between lectures had seeped into the busy lunch period and so, as I blinked back to consciousness, I found the quiet table I had nodded off at was now occupied by a Quaker couple eating sandwiches. My interest was caught by their conversation about foraged pastries.

“Do you get them from supermarket bins?” I asked them, the folds of my sleeves imprinted across my face. They told me they regularly collected and redistributed the contents of the big skip-like bins behind supermarkets. I had heard of people bin-diving before and I was captivated by their story. By the time I left for my afternoon tutorial, they had agreed to take me with them next time.

Later that week, I went on my first ever bin raid. We met outside a Pizza Express just after 10pm. Before we tucked down the alleyway, they repeated the warning they had given me in the library – that what we were doing was illegal. Supermarket waste was still owned by the supermarket, so taking it counted as theft.

Just walk confidently, they told me, as my heart pounded staccato against my ribcage. They showed me how to identify the food bins, although we didn’t bother with Marks & Spencer’s bins; the branch had a practice of pouring blue dye or bleach over their waste so that their bins could not be foraged, they told me.

The woman I was with used walking sticks to get around. When we arrived, she leaned them against the bin and hoisted herself over the top to see inside. I watched, impressed. The pair hauled out bags of bread, boxes of fruit and piles of dented cans for us to sort through. Some of the transparent polythene sacks had loose pastries or were muddled in with spilt milk and split packages, so we put them back. Another, though, yielded bottles of olive oil and bags of vegetables and fruit.

I had volunteered with a church food project before and knew how much hunger there was in the city. To see so much good food sitting in bins, some bleached and ruined to keep it from hungry hands, on the street where we had run a soup kitchen, left a lasting impression.

Two years later, having joined forces with my new housemate, Nikki, I had become a fully fledged “freegan”. We kept a bag by the door with rubber gloves, black sacks and beanie hats. We knew the shift patterns of all the security guards we had to sneak past, the positioning of CCTV cameras, and the schedule for waste collection. We had perfected the “wheelbarrow” technique where we would take turns to hold the other’s legs while they bent over into the bin. We hosted community feasts with our hauls and soon knew the names of the people who slept in doorways, or lived in tents on the city’s riverbank.

Our initial surprise at the quantity and quality of food we found had turned into anger at a system that labelled perfectly good groceries as “waste”. Soon our actions became more public: we took pictures of the bins we had raided and tweeted them to the supermarkets. Mostly, they went ignored but one of our photos showing piles of fresh vegetables from Iceland was shared hundreds of times, prompting the company to respond and claim it was an isolated incident. After we replied with a further series of images showing the bin contents on several previous visits, we were invited by news outlets to talk about what we had found and the supermarket was forced to publicly respond.

Eventually, we went from the back door to the front, asking food suppliers and supermarket managers questions about store waste systems, then negotiating with local businesses to collect their surplus. We researched supply chains and rang buzzers on warehouses in Gateshead’s Team Valley industrial estate.

We were often fobbed off with the reply “we don’t have any waste” and asked to leave premises. More than a decade since my first bin raid, most supermarkets have policies around food waste – we’ve now worked with the same branches of M&S and Tesco whose bins we raided, as one of many charity partnerships. More widely, Tesco says it redistributes all surplus food, while M&S and Iceland have committed to using bio-digesters, so surplus that isn’t redistributed can be turned into energy.

The systems can be imperfect and inconsistent, but now it’s on the agenda at least, for supermarkets and consumers.

As the amount of edible waste we collected grew, the community meals we organised became regular pop-ups in ever bigger church halls and borrowed cafes. The meals were Pay As You Feel (PAYF) so anyone could attend. We usually hosted a mixed bag of hipster students, people looking for community, environmentalists, and those simply in need of a meal. Then, six years ago, we set up a community interest company: our bin-raiding had become a fully fledged social enterprise.

Our company, REfUSE CIC, runs a large warehouse, PAYF cafe, catering company, PAYF shop, grocery-box deliveries, emergency food provision and a programme that supports people disadvantaged by language barriers and learning difficulties to train in catering and hospitality. We are based in Chester-le-Street, a town near Newcastle, with a team of 10 staff and more than 100 volunteers who collect and redistribute 10-13 tonnes of edible waste each month. The same companies whose doors we fruitlessly knocked on now call us, asking for help in their mission to send less food to landfill. During the pandemic, we distributed over 90,000 meals to individuals and families who were struggling for food. We dropped parcels to hotels that had been repurposed as emergency accommodation, and to hostels, refuges and houses around the county – all using surplus food. We even had to build new warehousing infrastructure to cope with demand.

When we’re asked about franchising our model, we always reply that our business model is to put ourselves out of business. We don’t want to be collecting surplus, and in a country as rich as the UK, people shouldn’t be going hungry. Instead, we want food systems to change radically, so that there isn’t any waste. Food production is responsible for one-third of global carbon emissions, so if we want to tackle climate change, we need to stop producing food that is thrown away, which currently amounts to a third of what is produced globally.

I never imagined, while I was nervously sorting through bread loaves in a pulled-down hoodie, that food waste would become such a recurring theme in my life. But, 10 years later, I can’t see an avocado or a croissant without thinking about how many are typically wasted, or how much water they took to produce. Most of the food I eat now has been intercepted from waste systems.

I sometimes think about the couple from the library – the woman with her walking sticks, and the man who packed the food carefully into his bag, the tins at the bottom and the bread at the top – and wonder if they have any idea of the journey that began that day.