Food waste in Germany – from the refrigerator to the dumpster

According to figures from the German Federal Statistical Office, 10.9 million tons of food ended up in the trash in Germany in 2020 – a figure that is as frightening as it is unimaginable.


According to figures from the German Federal Statistical Office, 10.9 million tons of food ended up in the trash in Germany in 2020 – a figure that is as frightening as it is unimaginable.

The topic is discussed again and again in connection with the actions of large supermarket chains, for example in a Tagesschau report from February 2022.

Why is food waste such a big problem?

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On one hand, the consequences for the environment caused by the production of food must be considered. Here, for example, the CO2 emissions in production or through long supply chains play a role. If, in addition, more is produced than can ultimately be recycled, the environmental impact increases quite unnecessarily.

Furthermore, from a moral point of view, it is difficult to understand why masses of food end up in the trash on one hand, while on the other hand they are urgently needed (e.g. as donations). This applies in particular in the current inflation times, which led to a strong increase in use of food banks: According to a report by the ZDF, there was a 50 percent increase in food bank users over the course of the year 2022; a third of local food banks even had to temporarily stop taking more people.

Why does food go to waste instead of being donated?

The tax burden is often cited as a reason for supermarket chains disposing of large quantities of food that is no longer suitable for sale instead of donating it: Donations are taxable, while waste is not. In fact, the legal situation is somewhat more complicated as well as constantly in flux. While for a long time food donations were indeed subject to sales taxes, there are now various benefits for donating companies. In particular, an innovation from 2021 has significantly improved the framework conditions here, as the Rundschau für den Lebensmittelhandel reports on its website: Under simplified conditions, food can be classified as “no longer marketable” and thus its value in the case of donation can be set at €0.00, so that the sales tax is no longer incurred.

But if the tax burden is not the biggest obstacle anymore, what is the problem?

Details on other aspects are explained by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture in its guide to donating food, which specifically addresses the legal dimensions. Simply put, food retailers wishing to donate goods must still ensure that they are safe products – for example, that food that has passed its best-before date is still edible and does not pose a health risk. Compared to disposal, therefore, donation means increased effort and also entails liability risks that supermarket operators sometimes shy away from.

It may therefore not be sufficient to simply make it easier to donate, but more concrete measures would have to be taken: In France, for example, supermarkets have been required by law to donate leftover but still edible food for several years. Other countries such as Italy and Finland have followed suit. At least among the population, such an obligation would be met with great approval: According to a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in a 2016 survey conducted by the Infratest dimap polling institute on behalf of the organization, a full 87% of respondents were in favor of mandatory donations.

Dumpster diving and its legal dimensions

In connection with the disposal of edible food by supermarkets, the topic of dumpster diving often comes up: The term refers to when people – both out of financial necessity and moral conviction – remove disposed food from supermarket dumpsters. Whether such a practice should actually be punishable as theft, as it has been for some time, has been the subject of public debate. German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir recently came out clearly against it, as reported by Legal Tribune Online. The legal details are still unclear, but the political direction of the current government seems to be set: As long as no other criminal offenses (such as damage to property or trespassing) are committed, dumpster diving itself will probably not be prosecuted in the future.

Supermarkets vs. private households

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Although there is a clear need for action on the part of supermarkets, one should keep in mind that food sale and retail are not the biggest contributor to waste. According to the figures from the German Federal Statistical Office quoted at the beginning of this article, the former only contributes 7%, while food production, for example, generates 15% of waste and 17% comes from restaurants and other catering establishments. However, private households remain the largest source of food waste, accounting for 59%….

The Welthungerhilfe and zugutfü each provide concrete tips on their tip pages on how we as consumers can also reduce our personal food waste and thus contribute to less waste.

Annika Rischmüller

Usually to be found at home and practising introversion at its best, including writing, reading, listening to podcasts, watching nerdy films and doing weird movements on the living room carpet that were originally supposed to be yoga. Occasionally being lured out of the house with the prospect of cute little dogs or a particularly good frozen yoghurt.
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