Behind a Berlin grocery store, 21-year-old Tina opens up one of the large dumpsters there and spots a bunch of rotting grapes and some stained rags.
“Those smell awful,” she said.
But she doesn’t let the ripe odour put her off her goal – finding edible food that was simply tossed aside. She reaches down under the spoiled and soiled mass and comes up with an apple, perfect save for two small bruises. She puts it in her backpack for now; she’ll eat it later.
Tina belongs to the “freegan” scene in the German capital, a group whose members find their food by combing through others’ trash. The word, a combination of “free” and “vegan,” is a growing movement of people who reject society’s ever-growing materialism and want to drastically cut back on their consumption of resources.
In addition to going dumpster diving for dinner, freegans look for discarded clothes or furniture on kerbs or “free stores” and often live as squatters in abandoned buildings.
Digging in the trash for your meal might be unthinkable to many, but freegans say it’s an appropriate response to a world in which so much excess food is thrown away, even when people are starving.
Freeganism traces it its roots back to environmental and anti-globalization movements in the United States in the 1980s. It takes inspiration from “Food Not Bombs,” an international group that feeds the homeless with surplus food that is often donated.
Being a freegan has nothing to do with poverty or homelessness in Germany. Most people in the movement come from the middle class, like Tina, whose father is a pastor.
Still digging around in the piles of detritus, the 21-year-old environmental activist finds a pretty good-looking carrot, all the while ignoring the forest of mould growing around the edges of the rubbish bin. “I’m oblivious to all that,” she says. When she began dumpster diving three years ago, she used to wear rubber gloves. These days though, she digs in with her bare hands.
“People aren’t meant to live in a germ-free world,” says Jan, her 21-year-old flatmate and frequent partner in the scrounging expeditions.
According to the two, in an ideal world they wouldn’t find anything edible in the garbage, since everything edible would have been consumed. Instead, they are constantly confronted with levels of waste they find shocking - bread thrown out because it’s too brown, cucumbers tossed because they’re slightly crooked.
“All of this wastes resources that could have been used somewhere else,” says Jan.
The two activists are not alone in the critique. Organizations like the German Welthungerhilfe charity and the World Wide Fund for Nature have long decried the global problem of food waste. Filmmaker Valentin Thurn recently filmed a documentary on the freegans called “Taste the Waste,” which screened at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and will hit more screens across Germany this summer.
No-one really knows how much food German supermarkets throw away every day, although the WWF estimates that fully a third of the planet’s produce ends up in the trash.
Done with this particular rubbish bin, Tina and Jan put on the backpacks and head down the street until they reach a large bakery. They look around carefully, though, before heading around the back of the building. Dumpster diving is against the law in Germany.
Taking trash out of a company’s dumpsters is considered theft and climbing over a fence to reach a garbage container is trespassing, according to Martin Heger, a law professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Tina and Jan are well aware of this, and are keeping their surnames names to themselves.
It’s cold out and Tina is shivering as she reaches the bakery dumpster, a large one at five metres wide and two metres tall. Jan takes off his backpack, pulls himself up to the edge and jumps down inside the container, landing squarely on a pile of fresh pretzels and baguettes.
It’s going to be a good night after all.