Advance: We throw away too much food, containers should change that. What speaks for – and against

Be honest, how much food ends up in your trash? I can tell you: a lot.

Advance: We throw away too much food, containers should change that. What speaks for – and against

Be honest, how much food ends up in your trash? I can tell you: a lot. 11 million tons of food are thrown away in Germany every year, most of it in private households (about 60 percent). That is about 78 kilograms per capita. For comparison: trade only contributes about seven percent. Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir described it as a disgrace "that food is still ending up in the garbage while tens of millions of people around the world are starving". It is up to each individual to avoid such food waste. But is it precisely the container that could make a significant difference here? Two ministers seem to think so.

Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann have written to the justice ministers and senators of the federal states in favor of only punishing containers if there is a breach of the peace "that goes beyond overcoming a physical obstacle without developing a significant effort or at the same time fulfilled the offense of property damage".

In other words, if you climb over a low wall to get to the supermarket dumpster and take groceries with you, you shouldn't be prosecuted for theft. However, anyone who breaks open and damages a gate in search of food that can still be eaten would still have to expect a penalty. The initiative goes back to a proposal by the state of Hamburg from 2021. This provides for a change in the guidelines for criminal and fine proceedings, which could be decided by the federal states. According to Özdemir, the changes to the guidelines on procedural law could be building blocks in the fight against food waste. However, there are no plans to change the law at federal level.

So far, so-called garbage divers - mostly looking for edible things in supermarket waste bins - have often operated in legal gray areas. This has sometimes taken her to court. A fact that has repeatedly led to discussions about the decriminalization of containers in the past.

But how useful is the move really? For Rezzo Schlauch, who in 2020 acted as a lawyer for two young people from Tübingen who had been caught with the containers, the advance does not go far enough. "I think that's half-baked, if you want to make a clean break there, you have to abolish the criminal liability of containers."

Rolf Sommer from the WWF also describes the intentions of the initiative as a good idea, but the federal government is not tackling the problem of food waste at the root. What ends up in the bin is only better distributed. In his words, it would be better if there were a statutory obligation to reduce food waste – for all economic stakeholders at all levels of production and distribution. So is there possibly a lot of fuss being made about little effect?

In any case, the Berliner Tafel supports the idea of ​​abolishing the penalties for dumping under these conditions. "I think that makes sense. I don't know at all why any food ends up in containers," said the founder and honorary chairwoman of the Berliner Tafel, Sabine Werth, on Tuesday of the German Press Agency. Instead of throwing away food, companies should rather donate it, says Werth. "Actually, everyone should have become aware that food no longer has to be thrown away."

There are many organizations that have taken up the cause of food rescue. Fruit, vegetables or packaged bread can be temporarily stored without refrigeration, she explains. The groceries would be picked up six days a week. "We're with the companies every day," says Werth.

That is exactly what many dealers and manufacturers are already doing, and the trend is rising. According to the Federal Association of the German Food Trade, at least 74,000 tons of food are collected every year and go to non-profit organizations. That's less than a tenth of what ends up in the trash.

Modern forecasting systems also ensure that the supermarkets buy more according to their needs and that less food is left over. Kristina Schütz, spokeswoman for the Rewe Group, reported to the Tagesschau: "Meanwhile, Penny and Rewe sell over 98 percent of their groceries on average over the year." So is it really the few rubbish divers who pick the last bits of food out of the bin at the supermarkets who can set an effective counterpoint against the throwaway society?

Cornelius Strangemann runs the Lestra supermarket in Bremen. He has allowed containers for more than ten years. Strangemann has even set up shelves for the corresponding goods, from which those who want them can help themselves. So they don't have to go through the waste bins separately. Being a pioneer in this field is not entirely without risk. In an interview with Deutschlandfunk, Strangemann said that under the current legal situation, he could be held liable. That hasn't happened yet, but theoretically he could be reported if someone had an upset stomach or worse because of the goods he had in his container. He therefore wishes that dealers who support containers like him would no longer have to accept liability in the future.

In any case, food safety is a factor that has always been raised against containers. Same this time. The general manager of the food association BVLH, Franz-Martin Rausch, sharply criticized the initiative and warned that certain foods in waste bins posed "a potential health hazard". For example, food from product recalls could be included, which could be contaminated with foreign bodies such as glass or metal splinters. "You don't see such dangers in the products," he told the editorial network Germany.

Not only does he see no need for legal action, after all there are "sufficient possibilities in criminal law and criminal procedure law to take account of all conceivable case constellations in individual cases". In view of the figures from the retail sector, Rausch does not believe that containers are an effective measure against food waste.

Several countries have already reacted to the initiative and at least signaled a willingness to talk, not without criticism. The Rhineland-Palatinate Minister of Justice Herbert Mertin "does not currently consider decriminalization through the proposed change in an administrative regulation to be expedient," as a spokesman said.

Rather, the FDP politician would welcome it "if the federal legislature were to make it clear in the announced major reform of the penal code that containering is not punishable". And Baden-Württemberg's Minister of Agriculture, Peter Hauk, thinks that makes more sense: "The best-before date must be abolished in its current form, because it's still one of the reasons why too much food is thrown away."

Saxony's Minister of Justice, Katja Meier, has another idea. Although she thinks the proposal by Ministers Özdemir and Buschmann is good in principle, she would like Germany to take its European neighbors as a model. She said: "[These] are fooling us into thinking that banning retail food waste is going to get to the root of the problem." According to her, a corresponding legal regulation would also be good for Germany.

Jacqueline Bernhardt, Minister of Justice in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, wants to examine the proposal and said: "It is important to me that containers are no longer punishable under certain conditions. Because when it comes to starving people, punishment cannot be a solution." The situation in Bremen is similar. It is obscene to punish people for taking edible food out of waste containers, said a spokesman for the Bremen justice department.

The coming months will show whether the ministers' initiative will be successful. Shortly before Christmas, the federal cabinet passed a draft law by Buschmann on the law on sanctions, which, among other things, provides for shorter imprisonment in the event of unpaid fines. However, the government has not yet decided on a further reform, in which, for example, fare evasion could be downgraded from a criminal offense to an administrative offence. In the course of this project, which is likely to take several months, it would be conceivable that there should also be a change in criminal law in addition to the containers.

Source: BMUV, Tagesschau, Deutschlandfunk, editorial network Germany, with material from the dpa