When it comes right down to it, no one actually thinks this is okay: Food is not something to be thrown away “because others have nothing to eat”, as younger people would say, and as for the elderly: “I was around during the war and we were glad to get our hands on every crust of bread!” That’s one side of the story. They discover the other side when they venture a look into dumpsters: behind their local supermarket and, if they can summon up enough courage, in the trash cans outside their own door. We’re not talking about chicken bones and potato peels here. The topic at hand is perfectly edible food, some still in the original packaging, and frequently enough not even the ‘best before’ date has expired. Around 100 pounds per household each year. Even more, about twice as much, is ‘rejected’ on fields, in factories and at retailers.
Why are ever-greater quantities being destroyed? We seek explanations: from supermarket sales staff and managers, from bakers, wholesale market inspectors, welfare recipients, ministers, farmers and EU bureaucrats. It’s a system that we all take part in: Supermarkets constantly have the complete selection of merchandise on offer, the bread on the shelves has to be fresh until late in the evening, strawberries are in demand at any time of the year. And everything has to look just right: One withered leaf of lettuce, a crack in a potato or a dent in an apple and the goods are sorted out; containers of yogurt as early as two days before the ‘sell by’ date has expired.
Agriculture is responsible for more than a third of the greenhouse gases worldwide because farming requires energy, fertilizers and land. What’s more, whenever food rots away at a garbage dump, methane escapes into the atmosphere, a climate gas with an effect 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. In other words, when we waste half of our food that has a disastrous impact on the world climate.
And on famine, too. My mother always reminded me to eat everything on my plate: “Children in Africa would be glad to have that food.” We children never took her seriously. How were the leftovers on our plates supposed to get to African children? Yet my mother’s statement proved to be as good as prophetic. The rising prices of wheat clearly illustrate the point: These days we buy our food on the same world market where developing countries buy theirs. If we threw away less and bought less as a result, the prices would drop and more would be left for the hungry.
We visited people who want to stop this incredible waste:
- “Dumpster diver” Hanna Poddig, who rescues food from supermarket dumpsters.
- Researcher Felicitas Schneider from Vienna, who takes apart the contents of garbage cans from households and supermarkets.
- French supermarket manager Thomas Pocher, who wants to get his customers to purchase products that do less harm to the climate.
- Sabine Werth from “Berliner Tafel”, a food charity organization that distributes supermarket rejects to the needy.
- Biogas plant operator Jörn Franck from Hamburg, who generates energy from the remains of a society where excess is the byword.
- Anthropologist Timothy Jones from the USA, who doesn’t want to leave it at simply taking a census of garbage and has founded “community-supported agriculture” in which consumers hire a farmer who supplies people with vegetables on a regular basis.
- Westphalian potato farmer Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf, who regrets that nearly half of his crop has to be sorted out due to ‘optical’ factors.
- Cameroonian smallholder farmer André Foka, whose land was appropriated by a banana plantation.
- Beekeeper Andrew Cote from Manhattan, New York, who wants to put a stop to the waste by bringing agriculture to the city.
- Timo Schneider, who teaches big-city kids in Berlin how to prepare fresh vegetables.
- Véronique Abounà Ndony from Cameroon, who sorts out the remains at the wholesale market in Paris for the needy.
- Fabian Huber, eco-activist from Cologne, who staged a ‘carrot mob’ at a bakery in honor of a baker who reduced his assortment as of 5 p.m. so that less bread lands in the trash at the end of the day.
All of them are working together on a goal that offers a major opportunity: If we were to save merely half of the avoidable garbage, that would have the same effect on the world climate as when we took one out of four cars off our roads.