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Food from the trash can: Will dumpster diving soon be legal?

January 15, 2023

Fishing for edible food in dumpsters could soon become legal in Germany. But the basic problem of food waste remains.

young people removing green vegetables out of a blue bin
Some students take food out of the garbage bins outside supermarketsImage: Christiane Raatz/dpa/picture alliance

A wilted lettuce and a few brown bananas. Perhaps the meager booty that the Greifswald police officers found in Salome K.'s backpack will one day be found displayed in a museum, with the sign: "Because of this food, people in Germany ended up in court in 2022." Dumpster diving is illegal in this country.

But if Justice Minister Marco Buschmann from the neoliberalFree Democrats (FDP)and Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (Greens) have their way, fishing for edible food in supermarket trash containers will soon go unpunished, provided there is no trespassing or damage to property. "Anyone who saves food from the garbage can should not be prosecuted further for doing so," Özdemir said.

The federal ministers are supporting the proposal from the state of Hamburg, an amendment to the so-called "guidelines for criminal and administrative fine proceedings."

On trial for dumpster diving

Food trade rejects minister's initiative

While some students in Germany who have to stretch every cent — and go dumpster diving to fill their sometimes empty fridges — are celebrating the initiative, Christian Böttcher, the press spokesman for the Federal Association of the German Food Trade is less enthusiastic.

"We believe there is no need for action from a legal point of view," he told DW. Even now, public prosecutors can drop such proceedings on the grounds of triviality if they involve garbage cans that are freely accessible, i.e. neither secured with a lock nor located in fenced-off areas. "The two ministers' proposed regulation is therefore unnecessary."

But Böttcher's main concern is, paradoxically, the same as the (mostly young) people who go dumpster diving: the unbelievably high level of food waste in Germany — 11 million tons a year. 

The food industry, however, sees itself as being unfairly targeted, as it is only responsible for 7% of the losses.

"This initiative does nothing in terms of reducing food waste," Böttcher says.

According to the UN Food Waste Index 2021, Germany is the frontrunner in Europe in terms of food waste by private households; only China, India, the USA, and Japan throw away more food. 

The UN reports that 931 million tons end up in garbage cans worldwide. At the same time, more than 800 million people on earth suffer from malnutrition and go hungry. 

The German government has set itself the goal of halving total food waste by 2030 — partly by ensuring that more products end up at the 960 food banks across the country. 

"We lock our garbage cans or we fence them off to keep the risk as small as possible from the outset that food sourced from the garbage could be a health hazard." 

elderly women collecting food at a food bank in Oberhausen
Many supermarkets provide food banks with expired but edible foodImage: Volker Witting/DW

Biggest problem: Liability

A classic example would be product recalls. If a manufacturer discovers that a food item has been contaminated with pieces of plastic during the production process, for example, it immediately informs the retailer. 

Since it would be too expensive to send the goods back, however, they end up there from the warehouse directly in the trash. This is another reason why Böttcher is against legalizing dumpster diving. The Federal Association of the German Food Trade (BDL) is afraid of being held liable for food removed from the containers that may not be edible. 

But Rolf Sommer has an idea of how to solve the liability problem. The head of agriculture and land use change at WWF said:

"If you can't produce a receipt for the food, you can't hold the company liable for possibly harming yourself. Whoever takes discarded food is then already responsible for themselves, because no contract in the sense was concluded between the two parties. There are many retailers who would also like to pass on their expired goods, but they could possibly make themselves liable to prosecution."

Infographics showing how much and what kind of food was wasted in 2011
The problem of food waste is not new

The Italian model

In Italy, there are financial incentives including tax breaks if companies stop throwing away their food under the so-called "Good Samaritan Law". 

According to this law, companies and initiatives are also exempt from liability in cases where there is no gross negligence or intent to harm.

But clearing up legal issues and legalizing dumpster diving is just the beginning for Sommer. Of course, every food item that is saved is a win, he says. However, the problem is not yet being tackled directly at the root:

"All companies along the supply chain must be obliged to reduce food waste. The government must oblige all commercial operators to reduce food waste by setting binding targets, starting with the agricultural sector. Dumpster diving needs to be made obsolete in the long term."

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.