Freeganism vs. Law

If you throw something in the bin it means that you don’t want it anymore, surely? It doesn’t necessarily mean someone else can take it though.

The Oxford dictionary offers the following definition of ‘freegan’:


A person who rejects consumerism and seeks to help the environment by reducing waste, especially by retrieving and using discarded food and other goods.

This would definitely sound like a good thing, a moral philosophy based around the concept of ethical eating. The reality is that we live in (in the ‘developed world’) incredibly wasteful societies and that every year supermarkets dump ridiculous amount of food that is still edible but has passed it’s sell by date. Figures from the Waste and Resources Action Programme show that 15 million tons of food waste is thrown away each year in the UK alone1. The situation is similar in some other European countries and in the USA.

This results in an estimate of 15 million tonnes of food waste arising in the UK each year. In comparison, around 41 million tonnes of food are purchased in the UK (the majority for in home use), meaning that the amount of food wasted throughout the supply chain is equivalent to around a third of that purchased.

Waste and Resouces Action Programme

This is clearly a ridiculous situation and you might think that any action to reduce these figures would be a positive one, but critics would argue that this is an idealistic and romanticised view. They would contend that whilst there may be many people who practice freeganism for these moral reasons there are also a large number who do it for much more selfish and financial reasons, and that it is not just that some people take for free what others are expected to pay for.

There are various ways to obtain food for free. You could get yourself a fishing rod, try your hand at foraging, eating roadkill or growing it yourself, but for the majority the key component of of freeganism is dumpster diving.

The problem arises with the fact that in most places it isn’t strictly legal, which brings us to the strange question of the ownership of rubbish. Surely once you throw something away it signifies that you no longer want or need it and reject ownership of that item, doesn’t it?

Well, not necessarily, it all depends on where in the world you throw it away….

Possession or control

Under UK criminal law, a supermarket retains “possession or control” of any discarded food, despite having thrown it into the bin, until the rubbish has been collected by the local authority or private company who the supermarket has authorised to dispose of the waste.

All of the time that the food waste remains in the “possession or control” of the supermarket, anybody taking it can be considered to be committing an act of theft, which is defined as “dishonestly appropriating property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it”. For the purposes of this law “property shall be regarded as belonging to any person having possession or control of it, or having in it any proprietary right or interest”.

So, the law is very clear, all of the time that the rubbish is sitting in the supermarkets bin waiting to be collected and taken away, anybody taking it without explicit permission from the supermarket is committing an act of theft. There is also the issue of trespass if the bins are located on private property, and possibly vandalism if they have been secured with locks.

Food or any other goods can be legally taken if they have been “abandoned” because they are then not subject to theft. The problem is that defining “abandonment” is tricky. Losing or forgetting something doesn’t count, the owner of the goods has to give up control and be truly indifferent about what happens to them.

The law is very similar in many other European countries including Germany, Sweden and Italy.

In the United States the way the law sees “abandonment” and “possession and control” are slightly different. Once you throw something in the rubbish you have abandoned it and the law assumes that you have given up any claim to or rights concerning the property. The precedent was set in a 1988 case, which stated that “when a person throws something out, that item is now the public domain.”2

The laws about trespass and vandalism do still apply though, so you can take something from the bin, but you can’t go on to private property to do so without the owners permission.

Vive la France!

The situation in France is slightly different, the legality of going through the bins doesn’t really matter at all because outside a supermarket you shouldn’t find anything interesting in them.

Under a recently passed law, supermarkets will not be allowed to throw away or destroy any edible unsold food. Instead they must donate the waste to charities or use it as animal feed. They will also be banned from deliberately spoiling unsold food, which has been a popular practice to deter bin diving until now.

Shops above a certain size have until July 2016 to sign contracts with charities or face penalties including fines of up to €75,000 or two years in jail.

There’s an absolute urgency – charities are desperate for food. The most moving part of this law is that it opens us up to others who are suffering.

Yves Jégo, French MP

It’s a rare thing for French politicians to agree with each other across party lines, but this time they have done so unanimously. Whether you agree with freeganism or not, reducing waste and helping charities to feed those in poverty are pretty great things to be creating laws for.

So, well done France! Dumpster divers might disagree as they will deprived of their key resource, but I sincerely hope that other governments follow suit.

One thought on “Freeganism vs. Law

  • June 2, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    It’s so stupid to waste all of that food, but there have to be some kind of restrictions or system to distribute it. If not then everyone could just wait for the shops to close and go and pick it up once it was out of date.


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