Saving the World by Eating out of the Bin?

It's shortly after midnight on a Saturday in Mainz and a good time to swing by the local Rewe supermarket for a look.

Carring a backpack, Alex (whose name has been changed for the article), a 24-year-old biology student, is on his way to the store. The night is cold and the stars are shining.

Alex is a dumpster diver: Someone who doesn't walk through the front entrance to the supermarket, but whose patch of turf is out back where the trash cans are kept. Their hauls can include salad with wilted leaves, dried-out bread or cookies in damaged packages -- everything that shoppers inside the supermarket would no longer buy.

Alex has belonged to the German dumpster-diving scene for the past two years. Their numbers have continued to rise, especially in college towns like Mainz, Cologne and Hamburg. The food hunters comb through the trash bins of supermarkets nearly every night. Alex's hunts have become as regular as trips to the library over the course of his university studies. He knows the supermarkets like the local Edeka, Plus or Penny well, or rather their backyards.

Against the Throwaway Society

Is he hard up for cash? "No," says Alex. He earns money as a tutor, and his savings on groceries are only a positive side effect. Alex is someone with strong convictions: He "dives" to set an example in opposition to the throwaway society, the hasty disposal of staple food, and the "madness" that something perfectly useful lands so quickly in the garbage.

Tonight, Alex travels to a Rewe supermarket in a drab suburb that he knows well from earlier visits. The store is illuminated around the clock like a casino with a bright sign that promise big winnings. Alex still has to overcome a couple of obstacles in order to reach Rewe's trash containers because German supermarkets lock their garbage bins as they could be liable if anyone like Alex becomes sick from eating products put into the trash.

Alex runs by the main entrance, which is clad in advertisements for oranges and sparkling wine. He then reaches a black iron gate. It is adorned with gold-colored ornaments and protected with a security lock. Alex is relaxed and takes a quick look around. He knows that what he's about to do is legally considered burglary. Even so, dumpster divers who've been caught have gotten off lightly, despite the fact that they could theoretically receive jail sentences.

'It's a Little Like Digging Through a Treasure Chest'

Alex skillfully swings open the gate and slides along a concrete wall, careful not to set off the motion-detection alarm. In short time, he's standing before nine giant dumpsters. The smell of sweet decay, rotten vegetables, and rancid fat and meat penetrate the senses. Don't let the stench deceive you, Alex says. "Each container has something that's still good."

Alex takes off his backpack, puts on his leather gloves and illuminates the first trash bin with a flashlight. "I think tonight will be successful," he mumbles leaning headfirst into the black bin. The biology student fishes out two packs of cooked ham, four packs of dumpling dough, seven packs of spread and some chives. Then, he turns to the other trash bins.

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