Should “freegans” be prosecuted? (AK)

Anna – Year 9 Student

Editor’s Note: This excellent essay was a ‘highly commended’ entry into the GSAL Year 7-9 Essay Competition organised by Mr Yates as part of the 2008 Society and open to all students. 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 recent years, the freegan ideology (to take goods that appear abandoned without paying for them) has become increasingly popular. This is especially due to rising concerns about food waste, food miles and the impacts that consumerism and capitalism have on the environment. As well as wanting to reduce costs and the amount of food going to waste, freeganism is also about moving away from the conventional economy.

Currently, there is no law specific to freeganism, thus causing it to be an inevitably grey area. Consequently, queries over whether freegans should be prosecuted for theft is a controversial and frequently debated topic. Statutory law in England and Wales states that theft is the ‘dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with intention to permanently deprive the other of it’. This suggests that the freegan would have to take the goods without asking permission from the supermarket/owner of the items for it to be illegal. The majority of freegans use a ‘bin raiding’ technique, without first seeking approval and consent, which would be seen as ‘dishonest appropriation of property’ in the eyes of the law. Usually, freegans take food in order to reduce waste, although sometimes they will also take clothes to recycle them, minimising the global impact of fast fashion. Once the goods have been consumed or used, they will not be returned to their original holder, ‘permanently depriving’ them of their belongings.

Freegans take goods that ‘appear to be abandoned’, a very vague phrase, which some people may argue allows freegans to take almost anything they want. The lack of clarity in this statement raises a few questions: if a bike was lying outside someone’s house does it ‘appear to be abandoned’ in the same why a bike lying on a skip is? By entering someone’s garden and taking goods that ‘appear to be abandoned’ from their household bins, is that morally wrong in comparison to removing goods from a supermarket bin? Is an ‘abandoned’ box of cereal as valuable as an ‘abandoned’ £50 note? By condoning freeganism, are we allowing other petty crimes and potentially harmful acts to also be accepted?

In our modern world, there is a colossal emphasis on consumerism and supply and demand. In the western world especially, there is a constant demand for exotic products at rapid speeds, meaning that the rest of the world makes up for our excessive consumption, causing industrialism and destruction of natural resources to increase. Previously in the UK, food was often grown at home or by local farmers and the local economy would be supported when buying from nearby grocers and farm food shops. Supermarkets often throw away food in a perfectly good condition as the customer sees it as ‘too wonky’ or ‘slightly bruised’, compromising their ability to eat it. The freegans save these perfectly edible products from their landfill fate.

The seasonal diet also meant that produce was only grown at certain times of the year, in comparison to our current mind-set that we can get whatever food we want, whenever we want it. Despite a proportion of people who forage for food from bins doing so because they have no other means of acquiring food (often for financial reasons – whether desperate and destitute or trying to save money), freeganism makes a statement against the damaging habits of the 21st century. It highlights the prominence of consumerism and promotes a more minimalistic approach to living. Some may see this as extreme; however, it is true that changes need to be made to our society and how we view resource management. Freegans are doing our world a favour and beginning to challenge the wasteful ‘throwaway’ culture that we have become accustomed to.

Theft was defined by a law written in 1968, around 52 years ago. Since then, social issues and perceptions have drastically altered, with one of the main problems our society faces being that of how to prevent severe climate change that has the potential to devastate our world. In addition to this, our tastes have expanded and cheap transport and labour has allowed produce to be flown halfway across the world in order to meet the wants and extreme appetites (for both edible and material products) in the Western world. As a repercussion of this, sacrifices have been made elsewhere: gargantuan piles of waste, people working in poor conditions for minimal pay on plantations and production lines, immense quantities of carbon dioxide being released during transportation of produce and people going hungry when others have plenty. These are all as a result of the lifestyles the preponderance of the Western World lead. Freeganism flies in the face of that harmful way of living and engages in our burgeoning realisation that we must make changes to avoid incurring more harm to the people and environment around us.

In 1968, the aforementioned social issues were not as pressing. Society changes, therefore its laws must change with it, adapting to meet the present circumstances. Clarity on the statutory law of theft must be provided so that freegans can safely, legally aid society, without depriving it or changing how other forms of theft are perceived. Whether a new law is made relating directly to freeganism or the current law is adapted to adhere to various situations, I do not believe that freegans should be prosecuted and that we should follow their lead in making changes to our daily lives to reflect the changes we want to see in the world.


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