Gluing Together Anti-Waste Laws

Feb. 17, 2022

Germans want to copy France's laws against wasting food.

Why did the protester glue herself to the road?

To keep you from wasting the chicken. Along with the eggs, the produce, the bread...

Germany has been roiled for a couple of weeks now by protesters who have been gluing themselves to pavement in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and other cities. The protestors, who give themselves the macabre name Last Generation, are agitating for a food waste law obligating retailers to donate old food instead of throwing it out.

The protests have been going on for about a month, with some 15 protesters disrupting rush-hour traffic last week. They’ve gotten creative, too, with some activists digging up a lawn and planting potatoes in front of the residence of Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new chancellor.

They basically are asking for measures in Germany similar to the one France passed in 2016. That law made it illegal for supermarkets and other retailers to just dump food willy-nilly whenever it reached its “sell-by date.”

There’s no question that food waste is a problem, here as well as in Europe. According to one estimate, up to 40% of U.S. food production ends up wasted. Not only is it nearly obscene to throw away that much food when so many are going hungry; decomposing food is a major source of methane, one of the most toxic of greenhouse gases.

But the French anti-waste measures are far from straightforward to put into practice.

Supermarkets of more than 4,500 sq. ft. have to sign “agreements” to make donations to local food charities, but these are not binding contracts. There are financial penalties for noncompliance, but none were assessed during the first three years of the law’s existence, according to a comprehensive article in Food Tank. There are also carrots: Firms get a tax break of up to 60% the value of donated items.

Food banks reported problems in dealing with a surge of donated food, much of it perishable. Third-party services have sprung up that specialize in coordinating donations, especially in rural areas with logistical challenges.

But the overall effect of the French law has been mostly positive, according to the Food Tank article and other sources. In 2017, the first full year of implementation, food donations increased by 30%.

Could such a measure fly in the U.S.?

I have my doubts. As I’ve said before, donating food that’s about to expire isn’t as simple as setting it outside the door and letting hungry people have at it. The French system is complex, but that complexity is appropriate; safeguards need to be in place to ensure that the donations are safe to consume.

But there is another obstacle: Americans just don’t like being told what to do.

The French don’t have nearly the aversion to bureaucracy that we do. We are in the midst of a collective tantrum over the necessity for life-saving measures during a deadly pandemic. I have a hard time believing that many of us would put ourselves out too much just to help poor people or slow down global warming – not for all the glue in Germany.

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