Dumpster diving for dinner and a better world

A growing number of Germans are joining the so-called "freegan" movement. Finding supper in the rubbish bins behind supermarkets, the radical recyclers eat what others throw away, not due to poverty, but as a protest against a world of über-consumption.

Dumpster diving for dinner and a better world
Photo: DPA

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.

DAPD/The Local/kdj

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.