Waste Not, Want Not: the Story of Germany’s Food-saving Revolution

What happens to bruised bananas, bread baked yesterday, and yogurts in imperfect packaging? More often than not, even slightly damaged food, though still edible, is deemed unsellable by retailers and thrown away. But in Germany, a grassroots movement is in full swing, and it looks to offer a unique and genuinely effective solution to the growing problem of food waste.

Author Marisa Pettit, 11.10.14

What happens to bruised bananas, bread baked yesterday, and yogurts in imperfect packaging? More often than not, even slightly damaged food, though still edible, is deemed unsellable by retailers and thrown away. But in Germany, a grassroots movement is in full swing, and it looks to offer a unique and genuinely effective solution to the growing problem of food waste.

According to UNEP, each year an estimated 30 percent of all the food produced for human consumption ends up either lost or wasted which is  a total of 1.6 billion tonnes. The vast majority of it, around 1.3 billion tonnes, is still fit for human consumption. A report released by the FAO last year indicates that in medium- and high-income countries, the wastage usually happens late in the supply chain, with consumers’ and retailers’ behaviour playing an important role.

Back in 2012, one frustrated dumpster diver in Germany asked one of the largest organic supermarket chains in the country whether they couldn’t come to some kind of agreement. He and his friends would gladly pick up the unsellable food directly from the supermarket every evening before it ever became garbage. They agreed and as the idea spread from city to city, and from store to store, an online portal was set up to make collections easier. And thus, lebensmittelretten.de (in English, literally “food saving”), was born.

The lebensmittelretten.de website, with a map showing the number of participating businesses in each area

The concept is simple. The food savers sign a straight-forward legal contract that protects the participating businesses from any reprisals and are then free to collect food from supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants, and distribute it where it’s needed, either giving it to friends and relatives, or donating it to homeless shelters and needy families. In many cities, food savers have even set up official public distribution points, where people can bring and take food as they please. The food maintains its intrinsic value and finds its way back into the system.

The website, with its constantly updated online map of collection points, is a great example of online action working to support real offline collaboration. Since the platform officially went online in 2013, almost 8,000 volunteers have saved over 514,000 kilos of food, and the numbers keep on growing. The organisation has spread to other countries too, with businesses in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands signing up to the scheme.

In a world where millions of people go hungry or are undernourished, the fact that such huge amounts of edible food is going to waste is shocking enough, but food wastage has environmental impacts too, with rotting food waste leading to methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that produces 21 times as much warming of the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of such worrying statistics. But food waste is an issue that affects us all in our day-to-day lives, and one where we as consumers can take steps to make a difference. As community-based initiatives continue to develop and grow, people around the world are devising simple and efficient ways to make a positive change.

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