As It Happens

German dumpster divers fail to get case thrown out in Supreme Court

If you've taken it out to the trash, is it still your property? That was the legal question at the centre of a case decided in German Supreme Court last week involving two dumpster divers caught taking food from a bin behind a grocery store.

Case succeeded in calling attention to food waste and its contribution to climate change

A case that reached Germany's highest court didn't succeed in decriminalizing dumpster diving, but did draw attention to the problem of food waste. (Shutterstock/ungvar)

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If you've taken it out to the trash, is it still your property?

That was the legal question at the centre of a case in German Supreme Court involving two dumpster divers caught taking food from a bin behind a grocery store in a town called Olching, near Munich, in 2018.

The women, both students — identified only as "Caro" and "Franzi" — were each initially fined € 1,800, or about $2,800. But the two decided to appeal that decision, eventually challenging its constitutionality in Germany's highest court.

An earlier appeal downgraded the penalty to eight hours of community service (at a food bank), but the defendants' lawyer, Max Malkus, said his clients wanted to establish new precedent around whether taking food disposed of by grocery stores can really be considered theft.

Though the court ruled last week to uphold the decision, the case succeeded in bringing attention to the issue of food waste, said Malkus. 

Back in 2018, the women were caught taking a few kilograms of yogurt, vegetables, tomatoes and apples, he told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Waste not, want not

There were a couple of reasons why they took this approach to filling the fridge, he said. 

"One is that they're students, and by nature, you don't have that [much] money in this moment. But on the other hand, they really strongly believe that it's not OK to waste food that much. So for them it's ... also [their] mission to use the resources we have in the best manner." 

A report by the World Wildlife Fund found that 18 million tonnes of food is wasted each year in Germany. 

An example of food retrieved while dumpster diving by students in Victoria, B.C. Grocery stores routinely throw out food that is past its recommended sell-by date but still perfectly edible. (CBC/Mike McArthur)

Malkus points out that Germany hasn't taken legislative steps to address food waste — a significant contributor to climate change — the way neighbouring countries including France, the Czech Republic and Austria have done.

Seeking to divert some of that waste by dumpster diving, Caro and Franzi carried on with their appeals even after the hefty fines were thrown out.

Malkus said they were arguing that if you're taking food that has been thrown away, you're not "taking value from someone."

Unfortunately for his clients, the court declined to override the current law, which says that an item thrown in the garbage still belongs to the owner or renter of the property as long as it is on the premises. Instead, it put the onus on lawmakers to make any future changes.

In the meantime, the issue is not likely to go away. According to Malkus, dumpster divers are entangled in the legal system on a monthly basis, while wasting food remains perfectly legal.

But freeing Germans to dumpster dive at will is not the end game here, said Malkus. Ultimately, his clients and other proponents want measures that will divert food to individuals and organizations that can use it, rather than to the landfill.

'We have to organize this by society," he said.

Written by Brandie Weikle. Interview produced by Morgan Passi.

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