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Hamburg aims to legalize dumpster diving

May 31, 2019

Dumpster diving for food is considered theft in Germany, even if others have thrown the food away. The city of Hamburg wants Germany to decriminalize the act and prohibit supermarkets from throwing out food.

food in a garbage bin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Till Steffen, Hamburg's senator for justice, believes people who take discarded food from garbage bins should no longer be punished, according to reports from German newspapers Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung and Pinneberger Tageblatt.

Under German law, it is a criminal offense to take food from garbage bins outside grocery stores and factories, even if the food has been thrown away because the optimum sell-by date has expired or there are pressure marks in the food.

The disposed of food is legally classified as "foreign movable property" — a label it surrenders it only during garbage removal. That makes taking food from garbage bins theft.

Read more: Dumpster diving for those who don't like diving into dumpsters

But Steffen, a Green party politician, called it unacceptable that supermarkets can throw away food but it is illegal for someone to take it. That is why he plans to file a motion calling for the legalization of dumpster diving when Germany's state justice ministers meet next week in Lübeck, a city located near the Baltic Sea in northern Germany.

Read more: Denmark leads Europe in tackling food waste

In addition to changing the law, Steffen said he wants to either clarify the civil code in which tossed food no longer becomes the property of grocery stores or prohibit merchants from throwing food away in the first place. Similar food waste legislation passed in France in 2016. French food markets with more than 400 square meters of retail space are legally obligated to give unsold food to non-profit organizations. 

Does the law need to be changed?

Germany's Justice Ministry doesn't consider a change to criminal law to be necessary as only in rare cases is it a criminal offense to take food out of garbage containers, a spokesman told Germany's Evangelical Press Agency.

"By throwing away food, the owner shows that he agrees with other people taking it," the spokesman said. He added that, when it comes to properly law, cases can be judged differently. For instance, if containers are tightly closed or if discarded items are intended as donations to others.

But Martina Skatulla, the environment commissary for the archbishop of Hamburg, believes the ban on dumpster diving should be lifted. She sees an "oversupply of the food industry, a waste of natural resources and a disadvantage for the poor rural population worldwide."

Timo Spiewak, the Hamburg spokesman for the Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas, also welcomes Steffen's push to change the law. 

"Garbage bins are not only a question of sustainability but also an expression of existential poverty," Spiewak said. "People who depend on this donated food should not also be persecuted."

Why one third of our food goes to waste

dv/sms (dpa, epd, KNA)

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