In Germany, activists battle food waste with dumpster diving

A dumpster diver picks through discarded food items in the back lot of a supermarket in Berlin. (AFP pic)

Wearing a balaclava and a headlamp under the cover of night, Andrea slips under an imposing fence into the backyard of a Berlin supermarket.

After a few steps, he reaches his target – a rubbish bin overflowing with pasta, tropical fruits and truffle olive oil, all still in their packaging and, at least visibly, ready for consumption.

“You’ve got to be fast, respect the sites and most importantly, evade police because it is illegal in Germany to take unsold goods from a bin,” said the anti-food-waste activist of his midnight run.

A master’s student in physics, 22-year-old Andrea, who declined to give his full name, said he was not dumpster diving out of financial need.

Rather, he participates in the raids, sometimes in a group, for “political reasons”.

“I’m fighting the system that’s based on over-consumption. My grandmother always said: ‘don’t throw food away’. But people prefer to dump things rather than give them away for free,” he complained.

Filling up his 60-litre (16-gallon) backpack, Andrea said he typically shares his haul with his flatmates, or cooks it up and distributes it free in a soup kitchen.

But his activism comes at great personal risk.

Carrying a penalty reaching up to hundreds of euros (dollars), dumpster diving is considered theft in Germany.

Objects disposed of in a bin on private grounds remain the property of the person who threw them away until they are collected by the dump truck.

Nevertheless, hundreds of activists across Germany still choose to carry on in the hope that they can force the industry to take action to end food waste.

11 million tonnes
Government data show that 11 million tonnes of food are dumped annually in Germany.

The WWF believes that the scale of the problem is up to 18 million tonnes a year if agricultural waste is included.

In a case that sparked waves in Germany, two students were sentenced in January for “serious theft” to eight hours of social work and 225 euros in fines each for having taken items from a supermarket bin.

“Anyone who has looked into a supermarket dump is immediately hit by the amplitude of the trash that’s still consumable,” the two students, who only wanted to be identified as Caro and Franzi, told AFP.

Their case has become the clarion call in the fight to decriminalise dumpster diving.

In a petition that has already won 126,000 signatures, they are urging the government to require major chains to provide their unsold goods to charity, as is the case in France or Belgium.

A similar petition calling for EU-wide change has collected 1.5 million signatures.

“A law like in France would be the next step if companies don’t take their own initiative,” warned Tanja Draeger de Teran, a food specialist at the environmental group WWF.

In France, a law from 2016 against food waste bans supermarkets bigger than 400 square metres (4,300 square feet) from throwing food away and making it unconsumable.

But in Germany, it is left up to the discretion of industry.

Amid growing disquiet over the food waste, hundreds of protesters in early June descended on the streets of Berlin in a first protest calling for dumpster diving to be decriminalised.

The city-state of Hamburg is now also considering legalising dumpster diving.

Risk of contamination?

The food and agriculture ministry have however warned that consuming food that has been disposed of could have health consequences as “the cold chain have been interrupted and that could lead to contamination”.

Supermarkets are already working “very well” with food banks on a voluntary basis, added the ministry.

Johanna Matuzak, a spokeswoman for the food banks, said 1.5 million people were reaping the benefits of voluntary cooperation with supermarkets.

But activists warned that in the absence of restrictive measures for supermarkets, there is little hope for real change.

“Here, like on the question of plastic waste, we think it’s not normal that only consumers are being targeted while the professionals” are actually responsible for 60% of global food waste, said Draeger de Teran.

Franzi and Caro also said there was little chance that the problem could be solved if there were only voluntary measures.

“We’ve only got one planet. The massive food waste problem across the world is one of the causes of global warming of the planet. We have to take immediate action,” they said in an email.

At the beginning of May, a UN panel on biodiversity published a report on food waste and said it was one of the main reasons for a major rise in carbon emissions.

Cutting down on the food waste deluge would also help feed 10 billion people by 2050, it said.