Each year, Germans throw away an estimated 20 million tons of food. For a long time, the problem was simply ignored, but now, there’s a greater awareness. Retailers and the government are looking for solutions.
Too much food is landing in the nation's garbage bins
It starts 15 minutes before closing time: An employee places empty plastic containers on a table, which is then stormed by about 30 people. They run to the buffet and fill their containers with fresh salads, warm foods, or desserts.
A full one-liter container costs four euros – a quarter of the usual price. The Cassius Garten restaurant in Bonn started the scheme two years ago in an effort to reduce waste.
Closing time specials have helped the Cassius Garten restaurant cut waste
"We had to do it, because every evening, we saw how much good food was left over that we were forced to throw away," says the restaurant's manager, Jan Lüth. Now, the kitchen is able to offer a larger selection of fresh foods until late in the evening. Lüth estimates that he still throws away about 350 liters of food each week, but that's much less than before.
Food glut in industrialized countries
In Germany, food is thrown away by the bucket load while people in other countries die of starvation. "In addition, this food took a lot of energy to produce, and that contributes considerably to global warming," says Valentin Thurn, whose film "Frisch auf den Müll" ("Fresh on the Garbage Heap") explores the topic of food waste.
According to Thurn, 20 million tons of food are thrown away in Germany each year, but there are no official statistics to confirm this number. In Austria, Sweden, the US, and Britain, however, studies on food waste suggest that the agricultural sector, retailers and consumers are each responsible for about a third of the waste.
The German association of food retailers, BVL, has worked out the cost of wasted food. "The share of food products that can no longer be sold is about one percent of net turnover on average," said BVL spokesperson Christian Böttcher.
With an annual turnover of 150 billion euros, for example, that translates into 1.5 billion euros in losses.
Supermarkets donating food
In supermarkets, food is taken off the shelf if it doesn't look perfect, if there's no demand for it, or if the expiry date is approaching. That date printed on packaging is one of the biggest causes of waste, says Böttcher.
"The manufacturer guarantees that the product will retain specific characteristics until the expiry date. But once the date has passed, it doesn't automatically mean that a yogurt is no longer edible, for example," he explains.
German consumers expect to see fully stocked shelves, even in the evening
Many supermarkets have found a solution by cooperating with charitable organizations that feed the needy.
REWE, Germany's second-largest supermarket chain, has been donating to charities for 15 years now. According to company spokesman Andreas Krämer, the chain is able to give away almost all the food it removes from its shelves.
"The only exception is food that we are no longer permitted to sell for legal reasons – fresh fish or ground meat, for example. That has to be thrown away," Krämer says.
But for filmmaker Thurn, the cooperation between retailers and charitable organizations isn't the ideal solution.
"The real solution is not in finding a way to distribute the excess; it's in preventing the excess," he says, adding that supermarkets would improve efficiency if they reduced the prices of products shortly before the expiry date and refrained from placing new stock on the shelves in the evening.
"But the fear of losing customers is so great that supermarkets would rather throw away food items worth millions than risk disappointing people."
The Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection has commissioned a study to find out exactly how much food is being wasted in Germany. Results are expected in the fall.
Valentin Thurn: "At least there's some awareness of the problem now"
"At least there's some awareness of the problem now," Thurn says, explaining that he received an "unbelievable number of emotional phone calls, e-mails, and letters" after his film was shown on German public broadcaster ARD.
The messages poured in not just from regular people, but also from industry professionals such as chefs and food retail personnel.
"People are very touched by this issue, and they no longer feel helpless, because everyone can do something about it," Thurn says.
He's also become more sensitive himself. Now, when he notices that the expiry date on his jar of pesto has passed, he simply takes a sniff. More often than not, the jar ends up back in the fridge, not in the garbage.
Author: Olga Kapustina / dc
Editor: Sam Edmonds