Competition Winner: Should “freegans” be prosecuted? (IS)

Izzy – Year 9 Student

Editor’s Note: This outstanding essay by Izzy was a very worthy winner of this year’s GSAL Year 7-9 Essay Competition organised by Mr Yates as part of the 2008 Society and open to all students. Izzy is an outstanding student who has already been published twice in The GSAL Journal: Exploring Leeds Town Hall and The Children of the Revolution are also both excellent reads. Izzy wins a £20 book voucher for her efforts.

A total of 15 students entered the essay competition and all entries were anonymously judged by a panel of teaching staff. The best essays were those that engaged critically and creatively with the demands of the specific questions that had been asked. They demonstrated some degree of independent research (effectively referenced and acknowledged in a  bibliography) in order to illustrate a range of points in support of a balanced argument. The three questions that students could choose from were:

  • Should “freegans” be prosecuted for theft?
  • What is main purpose of imprisonment and why might this change from time to time or place to place?
  • In the 21st Century is there a case for a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, and if so what should these be?

Three ‘highly commended’ entries have also been published in The GSAL Journal:

Duncan (Year 8) Should “freegans” be prosecuted for theft?

Anna (Year 9) Should “freegans” be prosecuted for theft?

Alfie (Year 9) In the 21st Century is there a case for a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, and if so what should these be?

Statutory law in England and Wales defines theft as the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with intention to permanently deprive the other of it (Theft Act, 1968). “Freegans” take goods that appear abandoned without paying for them. Should “freegans” be prosecuted for theft? CPD

In 2014, the Metropolitan police tried to prosecute three men for taking discarded food from commercial bins. Taking goods that appear to be abandoned is a practice of freeganism.  A lifestyle that works against capitalism and strives for environmental and social justice. The most reported form of freegansim in the UK is the taking of Food Waste.  To debate whether Freegans should be prosecuted for theft, we need to review the ethical motives, legalities and societies social responsibility.

Globally, around 25-30% of food produced is never eaten. It’s estimated 11% of all the greenhouse gas emissions from the food system could be reduced if food wasn’t wasted. At a time where climate change has never been more prominent, surely “ethical” eating of food by Freegans shouldn’t lead to legal prosecution? Freegans may not be able to resolve the food waste crisis, but their small contributions make a difference to society. Freegans are sending a powerful message and raising awareness about the volume of goods society wastes. Perhaps this ethical and moral message was a driver behind the CPS’s decision not to prosecute the three men for taking the food from the bins. Many large corporations now talk about a sustainable economy, where by 2050 resources won’t go to landfill. However, these targets are thirty years away. Surely today, where useful foods and goods are still going to landfill, an act promoting the usage of waste cannot be viewed as theft?

All individuals and groups are required to adhere to the legal laws of a country. The Theft Act 1968 states that “A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another”. From a pure legal standpoint there are two key terms to assess before deciding whether theft has occurred. Firstly, does the property belong to another and if so, has the person acted dishonestly? In terms of a freegan taking goods, it appears very difficult to argue that the goods didn’t belong to another. For example, a supermarket’s food waste is their responsibility and they must dispose of it in line with their legal requirements. Many supermarkets now work with local charities to use their food waste, for example feeding the homeless and supporting foodbanks. Food waste is also used to generate energy that helps run stores. Freegans are clearly taking property that doesn’t belong to them which leads to the classification of theft. However, to assess whether Freegans should be prosecuted for theft, we need to review whether they acted dishonestly? This lends itself to some debate. It may be argued that since a Freegan is taking food that would have been thrown out, they had a moral motivation and not a dishonest one. However, if a Freegan, goes in the middle of the night in disguise to take goods, this could be clearly seen as dishonest. Perhaps a Freegan who is open about their behavior, has a clearer case to argue that they did not act dishonestly. There are numerous case laws where people have taken waste products and sold them for financial gain, these have ultimately resulted in a prosecution for theft. However, if the motivation in these cases was based on freeganism and a desire to avoid goods being wasted, it would be very difficult to argue this was carried out dishonestly, making prosecution difficult.

Society is governed by very strict guidelines on how waste should be disposed. Corporations, communities and households are all bound by law, regarding the disposal of their waste.  If a freegan is rummaging through a skip for abandoned items and subsequently encounters hazardous waste, this could have quite serious health implications. The same principles apply to the disposal of food waste, a freegan could be taking food waste with no idea behind the reason for its disposal. For example, food could be discarded because of contamination and a freegan could cause serious damage to their health by consumption. Organisations, such as the Environmental Agency are there to ensure we dispose of waste in line with legal requirements and its important society adheres to these laws. Prosecuting freegans for theft could act as a method to prevent them using waste in a potentially harmful manner. It cannot be acceptable to walk into a prohibited, potentially hazardous area and take waste that is not your property.

In addition, society also has a responsibility to ensure that surplus waste is reused where possible by those that need it most. We now have a vast number of registered charities who work with large corporations to ensure their waste is distributed to the most vulnerable. Charities, such as FoodCycle and Neighbourly focus on feeding the needy in the community. There are currently around 2000 foodbanks around the UK and users are mainly in extreme financial vulnerability. In addition, charities such as the heart foundation take away unwanted goods that help generate much needed funds. If a sofa was left outside a house for collection and a freegan took the goods– should they be prosecuted for theft? Most Freegans will be able to afford the goods they are taking, freeganism is their ideological lifestyle choice.  As a society we have a social responsibility to ensure that we support the most vulnerable and by ensuring abandoned goods are distributed through official channels, we can work towards achieving this. Perhaps Freegans should be prosecuted for theft because they are potentially taking abandoned goods from the most vulnerable to support their lifestyle choice.

From a pure legal perspective, the question: ‘Should freegans be prosecuted for theft?’, is a complex matter. Each case would have to be viewed individually mainly focusing on whether the act of taking the goods was dishonest. In general, if Freegans were acting in a moral way and taking goods that would in all circumstances, have been destroyed, then a prosecution of theft would be difficult.  However, whilst the law is a grey area on this matter, what is indisputable is the fact that in the developed world we continue to waste significant amounts of food and other resources. At the same time, we have a deeply unequal society with high levels of poverty.  In a world where 10% of people are suffering from malnutrition and 11% of greenhouse gases causing global warming could be reduced if food wasn’t wasted, we need to do better.  We must work together to ensure abandoned items are disposed of correctly using authorised channels so that we control where the waste is going.  Freegans should perhaps focus on supporting these channels or using them if needed. To simply take goods on the grounds that they are abandoned could potentially prevent these goods being used by someone in much greater need. To prevent freegans from simply taking goods, prosecution for theft may be the only option.



  1. Food Waste Reduction Roadmap Progress Report 2019 (Published by Waste Resources Action Program of UK Govt.)
  2. Theft Act 1968 UK Public General Acts
  3. Case Law: Williams V Phillips (1957)
  4. Case Law: RV Ghosh 1982
  5. Case Law: R V Freely 1973

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s