“You can help yourself, otherwise they’ll just get wasted,” says a member of staff at Spitalfields Pret A Manger.
In my attempt to find dinner for the evening in bins, I struck lucky when I saw staff in a “closed” Pret were throwing unsold sandwiches away. After asking for some, I left with eight packets of premium salmon and salad sandwiches. I wasn’t breaking the law in that situation but had I been caught rummaging in Pret bins by a security guard, would I have a legal leg to stand on?
A group of people called freegans regularly find food and other necessities from bins and skips in a practice known as “urban scavenging” or “bin diving”. Freegans live simply, without money, and believe in giving something back to society. But it seems that even they can’t be sure if they are breaking the law. UK Freegans, a website dedicated to the freegan lifestyle, describes the legal ramifications of bin diving as “a grey area”.
Dr Sean Thomas, Senior law lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, identifies a need to clarify the law. He says: “Although it depends on the circumstances, it is my opinion that freeganism is not criminal and it should not become criminal.” In fact he believes arguments in favour of criminalising freegan activity tend to fall back onto personal feelings of disgust.
In his published paper, Do freegans commit theft?, Dr Thomas explains that a freegan cannot be prosecuted for stealing goods that have been abandoned because abandoned goods cannot be stolen. The problem lies in proving that goods have been abandoned and so a freegan, taken to court, would stand a better chance of avoiding conviction by claiming their actions were not dishonest. They could argue there is a moral right to take rubbish because it benefits the environment; that they believe the owner wouldn’t mind; or they don’t consider themselves or their activities dishonest. As it is even harder to define dishonesty it would be left to jury members to decide guilt or innocence.
Although this is where the law stands, it doesn’t immediately make life any less complicated for freegans.
JD, a freegan, says almost everybody who shares his lifestyle will have encountered security personnel during foraging escapades. He says: “I have personally encountered a number of threats from store managers and the occasional policeman. Having said this, I have also encountered quite a bit of support from such people too – those who are open to reason.”
A spokesperson for Association of Chief Police Officers says they aren’t sure at what point freegan activity becomes criminal: “Individual cases would be treated differently, but it’s difficult to give a definitive answer.”
Freegan UK [NOTE: website has turned into a site for ‘online casinos’] has a more direct statement on its website: “To our knowledge no one has ever been charged in the UK with stealing rubbish. It is likely that this is because supermarkets realise that prosecuting someone for recycling waste would open up an ethical can of worms.”
A freegan who follows the true values of freeganism believes that a world without money would be a better place and bin diving is only one aspect of their lifestyle. Regardless of personal opinion, the actions of freegans not only reduce our landfill waste but present a fierce challenge to the monetary values that are integral to our society.