Should “freegans” be prosecuted? (DN)

Duncan – Year 8 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. Duncan has previously had a review of the book ‘Itch’ published in The GSAL Journal. 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


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a freegan as: “A person who rejects consumerism and seeks to help the environment by reducing waste, especially by retrieving and using discarded food and other goods”1.

In other words, a freegan is someone that is taking waste and using it where it would otherwise be thrown away. Freegans are trying to “tread as lightly on the Earth” as possible. Many could afford to live another way yet they choose this lifestyle for many reasons: animal welfare, human rights, protecting the environment and a simpler lifestyle 2. It is just like being vegan but just giving up additional things aswell. Freegans feel that their behaviour will stop the everlasting cycle of working to buy things then working to buy more things… Freegans tend to be very skilled: they can make something out of nothing; repair very complex objects; forage in the hedgerows and grow their own food. However, they are most well-known for taking items out of bins. But should this be classed as theft?

Isn’t reusing something to be encouraged for environmental reasons?

According to an environmental website, the UK produces more than 100 million tonnes of waste every year 4. To put this into context, in less than two hours, we could fill the Albert Hall in London with rubbish. This is a massive amount so why aren’t we trying to stop this? Freeganism is one way to reduce this so why are people being arrested for saving the planet?

Some supermarkets are trying to tackle this environmental issue. On Tesco’s website they do have policies to reduce waste and claim that they have had no food going to landfill in the past 10 years 3. They are also helping others by working “with FareShare to donate surplus food from our stores to those in need”. However, after searching across many sites we couldn’t find any reference to freeganism.

Who owns ‘rubbish’?

According to the law “A person commits theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.”5

 It is wrongly thought by many that as soon as something is thrown away, it is no longer their property. This is actually false – it remains their property for 5 years after they have put it into the bin. In that time they can take back the item. After those 5 years they no longer own it and so removal by another person would not be prosecuted. I do not agree with this law because as soon as something is thrown away it should be counted as legally discarded and therefore no longer your property. This is because when you throw something away you are saying something is no longer useful to you but if it is useful to others then they should rightfully be able to use it to avoid waste.

When we put items into the bin at home the rubbish gets taken away by the council.  It then ends up in landfill where is becomes no use to anyone. We, as a society, are trying to reduce waste to help the planet yet in this instance law enforcement is doing the opposite by arresting people who are trying to recycle or reuse discarded items. It is interesting to note that removal of other’s possessions is seen as theft regardless w­­­­­­­hether the ‘thieves’ gain from it or not.

The law finds it difficult to tackle this new issue. As seen when the Crime Prosecution Service tried to prosecute three men after they removed items from a supermarket skip. The court used an obscure section of the law. This section was written in 1824 and is titled The 1824 Vagrancy Act. Even on reading the first line I found that it was very out of date: “Persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds.”6 The use of this law, suggests that there aren’t any up-to-date ways to prosecute freegans. Perhaps they didn’t have much right to prosecute these people in the first place? The article also says that they dropped the case due to the weight of public opinion in support of the ‘criminals’ 7.

In conclusion, I think that freeganism should be legalised and even encouraged. Laws are there to protect us so if it is doing no harm (and is seen by many to be actually doing good) it should be allowed. Perhaps the solution is to update our laws in response to this current issue?




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