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.
“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.
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.