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Meet the Freegans: Your trash is their dinner

Manuela Kasper-Claridge / sriMay 26, 2015

French MPs recently passed a law prohibiting large supermarkets from destroying unsold food products. The problem of throwing away edible food, however, is also widespread in Germany. DW examines.

Erlangen Containern Lebensmittel
Image: DW/M. Kasper-Claridge

"Germany is such a rich country you can even find high-quality food in the trash," says Luis, a 27-year-old student from Colombia. He is currently pursuing his studies in the German city of Erlangen and sharing an apartment with four other students. Luis and his roommates subsist almost exclusively on food they collect from supermarket dumpsters.

In Colombia, he would never have thought of looking for food in the trash. "You don't find good food in garbage bins there," Luis stressed. It was his German roommates who first introduced him to what's known as "dumpster diving."

Nadja, 25, shares the apartment with Luis. "Germans throw away an astonishing amount of food," she said, adding that she'd feel guilty about just leaving it to rot.

"The reason most food is thrown away is either because of wrong or damaged packaging, or because it's exceeded the shelf-life expiration date. After that, the supermarkets are no longer allowed to sell it," Lara, another roommate, told DW.

A movement

At least twice a month, the students go scavenger hunting through their local supermarkets' dumpsters. Armed with plastic gloves, bags and flashlights, they open sealed garbage cans only to find heaps of grilled meat, kilos of rice, sausages, bread and fruits.

"I am always happy when I see Physalis in the trash," Michael, a medical student, said beaming. He said he has never even as much fruit as he has since he started dumpster diving.

In recent years, eating discarded food has turned into a real movement, also known as freeganism. Many young people share advice onTwitter, using hashtags such as #containers, #containerdiving, or #foodwaste. There are similar platforms on Facebook.

Experts estimate that every year Germans throw away 11 million tons of food, valued at over 20 billion euros ($21.8 million).

Erlangen Containern Lebensmittel
Image: DW/M. Kasper-Claridge

Health risks

For big retailers, the issue of food waste clearly presents an uncomfortable question. Germany's biggest discount retailer Aldi did not respond to questions sent by DW. However, another discounter, Lidl, had this to say: "Lidl generally strives to avoid disposal of food products. The expiry date on our products are regularly and systematically checked," said the company's press office.

The retailer stressed that food deemed safe for consumption is donated to soup kitchens. The remaining waste is disposed of, Lidl said.

Thomas Bonrath of the Rewe Group, a supermarket chain with over 3,000 stores, says he doesn't know of any significant problems with freegans. But he cautioned that people who collect food from trash cans were not always in a position to determine whether the products that have exceed the expiration date are still edible.

Grocery chain Kaufland expressed similar worries. "We are aware that every now and then unauthorized people gain access to our premises and collect food products from the trash cans. However, we strongly advise against it, because we cannot take responsibility for any negative health risks," a company spokesperson pointed out.

Signal against waste

The students in Erlangen, however, don't buy this line of argument. They say their lifestyle is proof that food waste is literally that: a waste.

Because they get their nutrition from the trash, food safety is of the essence. First, they sort edible from harmful. Moldy food returns to the trash, while the rest is cleaned and stored in the refrigerator. Some they share with friends.

But they're aware eating trash is an acquired taste. Many don't even talk to their parents about it. Kerstin, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student, said her parents were horrified when she told them about the dumpsters. They didn't understand, they said, it's not like she had no other choice. Today, she said, she's simply stopped discussing the issue with them.

Erlangen Containern Lebensmittel
Image: DW/M. Kasper-Claridge

Steaks all around

Though it's been around for years, freeganism is still a legal gray zone. According to German law, removing food from a locked trash can is considered theft. However, if it's open and easily accessible, it's only trespassing. Still, anyone caught dumpster diving need not fear huge the full force of the law.

Nadja and her friend were once caught and detained by a supermarket employee. When the police arrived, they didn't even file a report.

The sociology student said they always make sure to clean up after themselves. Sometimes they even arrange the trash in the dumpsters so that no one notices they were ever there.

Every 14 days, the students spend several hours finding, cleaning and sorting food. Sometimes more, but rarely less. "It is especially worthwhile after holidays. Following New Year's Eve, we found tons of raclette," says Lara.

Luis, the Colombian student, said he was shocked to see the kind of stuff that ends up in trash in Germany. "It is sometimes so much that we can throw a real party," he said. Like that one time they found enough barbecue meat for 10 to 15 people. But even he prefers to not tell his parents about it.

Researcher Benjamin Restle contributed to this report.