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June 20, 2019

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In Germany, dumpster-diving is a new food group

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-liter 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, dumpster-diving is considered theft in Germany. Objects disposed 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.

Government data shows that 11 million tons of food are dumped annually in Germany.

The WWF believes that the scale of the problem is up to 18 million ton 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 fines 225 euros (US$253) 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,” said the two students, who only wanted to be identified as Caro and Franzi.

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

In a petition that has already attracted 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 and Belgium.

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

“A law like that 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 meters 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 decriminalized. The city state of Hamburg is now also considering legalizing it.

But the food and agriculture ministry warns that consuming food that has been disposed of could have health consequences as “the cold chain has been interrupted and that could lead to contamination,” adding “supermarkets are already working very well” with food banks on a voluntary basis.

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


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