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How Germans are turning to dumpsters for dinner
Photo: Jessica Ware

How Germans are turning to dumpsters for dinner

Published: 04 Apr 2012 10:50 GMT+02:00
Updated: 04 Apr 2012 10:50 GMT+02:00

‘Bin diving’ is no longer only a last resort for the homeless or a statement made by the politically idealistic - it is going mainstream. We sent our foodie reporter Jessica Ware to dive head first into some of Berlin's smellier bins.

I like, nay, love food, but despite the best of intentions I regularly find myself not just scraping decaying leftovers from the bottom shelf of the fridge, but binning ripe bananas or slightly separated yoghurt merely because they’re a bit gross.

So when we at The Local reported that Germans were throwing away over 11 million tons of food a year, I began to realise that it wasn’t just my own over-enthusiastic portions or fussiness, but a national phenomenon.

My new flatmate had been talking about bin diving for some time – a social movement that has been fading in and out of the media for a while now. It simply involves going behind shops at night and seeing what you can find in the bins.

"I heard about it on the internet and thought I'd give it a go"

And as around 40 percent of this 11 million ton food-mountain can be found in the bins behind supermarkets, offices and cafes, I decided to see what the fuss was about, and maybe pick up a midnight snack on the way.

While I used to associate bin diving with dreadlocks, veganism and die-hard anti-capitalist dedication, my flatmate Annika doesn't really fit with this – being a non-dreadlocked, cultural sciences graduate from a nice family in western Berlin.

Annika, like her experienced bin diver friend Giovanni, who we meet later in the evening, take to the bins because they know how much food is thrown away, and that much of it is of good quality - and up for grabs.

After seeing what Annika had brought home on her previous trips, I asked if I could come along to bag myself a shelf-full of free chocolate too (although she did explain that that was an unusually good haul).

We put on coats, grab the rubber gloves from the bathroom and head out to our bikes. It’s a warm evening in Berlin, and I revel in the air of naughty excitement.

Giovanni turns up and I instantly make a note to self to get another basket for my bike, as Giovanni has one on the front and back – clearly the sign of a pro diver.

First stop is just around the corner. It’s nearly 11 p.m. so the shop is shut and there’s no one around. I turn off my bike light and put my hood up. Giovanni and Annika do none of this, and as soon as we get behind the shop the floodlights come on.

First rule of bin diving - rubber gloves

It’s hardly subtle, and in one fell swoop the image I had of skulking around in the dark, whispering to my fellow food-warriors, was smashed - especially when Giovanni started slamming bin lids open against the wall and heaving out bags of old meat, pizza boxes and moulding fruit smeared in curdled yoghurt.

As Annika got stuck into a bin filled entirely with bunches of flowers, Giovanni said flowers were a common find – and had already put aside the best bunch for his girlfriend.

Click here for pictures from the night in Berlin's bins

“I haven’t been doing this for so long,” he explains. “But I tend to go about twice a week.

“I started reading about how much food we throw away, and I found it shocking. I’d heard about dumpster diving on the Internet and from people I know, and thought I’d give it a go.”

Giovanni does not plan on living from bin food – and said he did not think many homeless people did either, citing the inconsistency of bins which can be full of fruit one day and flowers the next.

And as the night rolled by, I could see what he meant.

We pulled out some wholegrain flour, several bunches of flowers, bruised but fresh fruit, a couple of eggs just over their sell-by date and a few broken but still wrapped chocolate bars.

There was also a whole cauliflower, opened own-brand pasta, a pack of passion fruit, fresh marjoram and some mini kiwis – which I didn’t even know existed.

It was a nice mix to take home and cook, but hardly instant sustenance for someone in need.

The first set of supermarket bins raided, we carefully tidy up and close everything - a golden rule of bin diving - and head onwards, bypassing several discounters who are notorious for keeping their rotting leftovers under lock and key.

Uninterested policemen

We swing behind another more upmarket shop, where I spot an abandoned rubber glove lying on the floor – we’d been beaten to it. My imagination gets the better of me again as I picture someone, clutching their free food, fleeing from a police car and dropping a glove.

But Giovanni said police were not often interested in bin divers.

“I got stopped by the police once,” he said. “And yes, technically bin diving is illegal but they were more interested in looking for whoever had broken into the store days earlier.”

“They just asked me if I’d found anything good, then drove off.”

“Had you?” I ask. “Yeah, 10 packets of dried fruit!”

We have certainly saved ourselves some money, and reduced by a couple of armfuls the amount of wasted food in Berlin this week.

“To be honest I don’t really care why people do it, it doesn't matter because they’re giving it a go,” said Giovanni.

“I know of quite a lot of people who’re doing it at the moment, not because they have to but because they feel they should.”

“It is exciting, isn’t it?” asked Annika, when we got back and laid out our winnings on the kitchen table.

“It’s like giving a new lease of life to an abandoned puppy,” she said nodding at the cauliflower she was sliding into the veg drawer.

I agreed with her - despite the ick-factor, there was something satisfying about tucking into an apple this morning that, like so many others, would have otherwise gone to waste.

Jessica Ware (jessica.ware@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

09:38 March 22, 2012 by hereward
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
14:29 March 22, 2012 by derExDeutsche
' ¦quot;It¦#39;s like giving a new lease of life to an abandoned puppy,¦quot; she said nodding at the cauliflower she was sliding into the veg drawer. '

I agree, abandon puppies are the embodiment of the movement , they too tear open garbage bags and eat what they find. the 'movement' of the politically idealistic stray dogs. Germany's future?
15:48 March 23, 2012 by scout1067
All I can say is wow. I guess these are modern day hunter-GATHERERS?
22:39 March 23, 2012 by Yontrop
I think I'll have to try this. I can be logical about things that seem to make other people say "ueew" (or however you spell that). But I don't understand just why you would wear rubber gloves. One of those head mounted lights would let me see what I was grabbing... but do I actually have to get up in a dumpster? If so, hip boots might be in order. Any hints from others who've tried it?
11:12 March 28, 2012 by nitseen
Oh dear. I'd rather stay away. I'm just not so adventurous!
00:09 March 29, 2012 by quiller
Good on the bin divers. Waste not want not. A high percentage of our food is wasted. It should be the wasters who are written about and not the people who use the food nobody wants.
10:14 March 31, 2012 by naguere
Well done Jessica, a nice article.

I would do it.
15:20 April 5, 2012 by AClassicRed
I've not gone bin diving in a public way, but have certainly "reappropriated" food thrown out. Until I told him not to do it anymore, one of my previous roommate would clean out the refrigerator weekly and throw out anything even slightly wilted or withered, including my own stuff. I would get it back out, because most of it was still edible.

With my current roommate, he may use half a paprika and toss out the other half just because he doesn't want to be bothered to wrap it up or store it. I go through the bin and take it out and save or use it.

As quiller stated & other remarked, and I agree, it is rather perverse and warped that many societies and their laws negatively focus on those collecting what has been thrown out at waste than actually at the people doing the wasting.

It was years ago but I worked at a shop with a bakery, and they used to donate the "just off date" bread to charities, but then started throwing it out at trash as a write off. When people came to get it from the bins they were run-off or the police called. Absolutely ridiculous the store would rather trash it than give to those in need.
12:07 April 7, 2012 by Anth2305
Or as we say here in the UK, we're all only 'nine meals from anarchy.'
17:53 April 8, 2012 by Anth2305
@Chango Mutney

"I never heard or read about anyone who said that!"

Google throws up around 600,000 results.. 'Coined by Lord Cameron of Dillington'.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1024833/Nine-meals-anarchy--Britain-facing-real-food-crisis.html
04:41 April 17, 2012 by DieselEstate
Very good article: Congratulations on losing your Freegan virginity. As members of the richest community in the world, we should all be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves for allowing this grotesque waste. Tesco is an absolute disgrace in the UK - harming farmers and consumers alike. They'd really rather bin perfectly good food than donate it to local charities. That they prosecuted a lone parent for her resourceful initiative, sickens me. Just bloody typical. Boycott Tesco!
16:20 July 19, 2012 by peney
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
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