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German group recycles surplus food to curb waste

Raphael Fellmer, a supporter of the foodsharing movement shows Christmas biscuits collected from waste bins of supermarket at his home in Berlin, January 31, 2013.

Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

It's a sunny afternoon in a leafy area in the southern part of Berlin. A handful of people are enjoying a late lunch at outdoor tables in front of an all-organic supermarket. Nearby there's a board displaying monthly specials on arugula and spinach from Italy.

Margarete Herrmann, a 57-year old psychotherapist with cropped blond hair, strides up carrying a large, empty green basket and an insulated backpack. Her manner is warm but brisk. It's time to rescue some food.

Ms. Herrmann is part of a new and unprecedented volunteer network that has spread throughout Germany and into Austria and Switzerland. The heart of the movement is in Berlin, where cost-conscious, waste-phobic residents arrange with stores and supermarkets to pick up food which otherwise would get discarded.

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Germany's pioneering efforts began after a documentary shocked viewers by revealing the amount of food going to waste. But the concern is echoed elsewhere in Europe: last week, France proposed legislation that would make it illegal for supermarkets to toss or destroy edible food.

"When we throw away what's eatable, I can't understand it," said Ms. Herrmann. "This is really crazy for me. I'm not political, but no, no – this is too much."

An employee buzzes us into a storage area and pulls up a cart. There are beets, heads of lettuce, boxes of sprouts, bundles of herbs and a cauliflower, all slightly wilted. The day's haul also includes dented apples and oranges, a wedge of watermelon and a piece of cake. An employee comes around the corner from the fridge bearing several cartons of milk and yogurt, their "best before" dates two days past.

Ms. Herrmann takes it all. A small amount goes into the compost, but the bulk of it she either uses herself or gives away – to neighbours, friends, taxi drivers, people in need or people she crosses on the street. It is always free. "Their happiness, their surprise – this is my money," she says.

Food waste is a hot topic in Germany. A documentary by filmmaker Valentin Thurn released in 2011 titled Taste the Waste electrified audiences with images of appetizing vegetables piled high in dumpsters. In response, the federal government commissioned an official study. It concluded that up to 65 per cent of food waste in Germany was unnecessary, at a cost equivalent to $26.4-billion a year.

In Berlin, the food-saving push began with Raphael Fellmer, a 31-year old father of two small children. Five years ago, he and a couple of friends hatched an experiment: They would travel from the Netherlands to Mexico without using money "to see if it was really possible to live from the food that is thrown away or shared," Mr. Fellmer says.

It was – and upon his return to Berlin, he resolved to continue his moneyless existence. "I was doing my master's degree in dumpster diving," he says with a laugh. The pickings were plentiful: breads, grains, fruits, vegetables. But he knew it wasn't legal and he preferred not to sneak around in the dark. So he began writing letters to the supermarkets in his neighbourhood proposing to pick up what they were throwing away.

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Bio Company, an organic supermarket with 32 stores in and around Berlin, became the first to agree in 2012. Now "I could go with my kids to pick up food," said Mr. Fellmer. Plus, such groceries are easier to share with others: "Some people are a little scared if they hear it's from the bin."

For Bio Company, the tie-in helped solve a problem. It already made donations to charity and allowed employees to take home some of the food it couldn't sell. Yet there was still edible food left over. "These are goods that are still fit for consumption," said Georg Kaiser, the chief executive of Bio Company, in a statement last year. Thanks to the co-operation with Mr. Fellmer and his volunteers, "the amount that still ends up in the garbage is small and really only what's inedible."

What started with Mr. Fellmer and one Bio Company store has grown significantly. Last year, Mr. Fellmer's network of volunteers merged with a like-minded initiative founded by Mr. Thurn, the filmmaker, in Cologne.

Using all-volunteer labour, they operate a website, foodsharing.de, which co-ordinates 7,000 people doing food pickups at more than 1,000 businesses across Germany. These "food savers" either distribute the food themselves or leave it at designated spots, where it is free to pick up. The group says it has saved more than 1.5 million kilograms of food from the trash. (For food safety reasons, it doesn't pick up fish, poultry or meat.)

The effort doesn't impact existing arrangements with food banks. Instead, its volunteers pick up what charitable organizations cannot, whether for legal reasons or scheduling ones. The food-savers must take a quiz to qualify and be reliable and punctual in their pickups. ("Otherwise store managers feel like, 'Aha, those hippies again,'" said Mr. Fellmer in a recent newspaper interview.)

While organization is critical, it's not the driving force. "It's the idea itself that is powerful," said Mr. Thurn. "It's a movement, a social movement." He hopes it will trickle down to individual neighbourhoods, with residents starting their own local food-sharing projects.

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Back at the organic supermarket, Ms. Herrmann sits at an outdoor table and tucks into the piece of apple cake she just rescued. (Verdict: dry but perfectly edible.) On one recent pick-up, she recalls, a store manager apologized for having so few items to hand over. But Ms. Herrmann was delighted. When the ultimate goal is to reduce waste, "We are happy when we don't have something to do."

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