Skipping and the Law
Many people have asked me about the legality of bin diving and the need to do it under cover. In response, I have compiled some information about the law’s attitude to bin diving in different countries.
Dumpster diving in itself in most countries is not illegal. However, in practice there are ways in which dumpster divers’ could get on the wrong side of the law. It is handy then, to be aware of what the laws are in different countries and be savvy to make sure that you in no way could be accused of breaking them.
1. GREAT BRITAIN
In the UK dumpster diving is legal. However, divers may occasionally get in trouble for trespassing whilst dumpster diving. Doctor Sean Thomas, senior Law Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, has explained that a freegan cannot be prosecuted for stealing abandoned goods because abandoned goods cannot be stolen. The problem lies in proving that the goods have been abandoned. A freegan, taken to court, could argue that there is a moral right to take rubbish because it benefits the environment and that they believed that the owner would not mind.
In the USA dumpster diving is legal. According to a 1988 Supreme Court Ruling (California vs. Greenwood), when a person throws something out that item is now the public domain. However, the following applies:
- If a dumpster is inside a building or a fence marked ‘No Trespassing’ you could be questioned, ticketed or even arrested.
- If you leave an area untidy you could be ticketed or arrested for littering.
- You could be ticketed or arrested for disorderly conduct, if you are blocking a sidewalk or creating too much noise or disturbance or if you refuse to leave an area when asked to.
In Germany the property inside a dumpster is regarded as the property of the dumpster’s owner. Therefore, taking items from a dumpster is viewed as theft. However, police will generally take into consideration the value of the item stolen before making an arrest and so dumpster divers will often not be the subject of too much hassle from the police.
In Canada property owners and security guards have the power to ban anyone from their premises, for any reason, permanently. This is due to the Trespass to Property Act. This is done by issuing a notice to the intruder, who will only be breaking the law on return.
It must be acknowledged that even though in most cases bin diving isn’t illegal, it is a grey area when it comes to the law. A Spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers has said that they are not sure at what point freeganism becomes illegal. He said: “Individual cases would be treated differently, but it’s difficult to give a definitive answer.”
Many freegans will admit to having been stopped by security guards or store personnel, receiving threats or abuse. Some Store Managers may say that food in their dumpster cannot be legally consumed by humans or that they cannot donate it or give it away.
Freegan UK have said: “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.”
So, although bin diving is mainly legal it is a bit of a grey area in law and there are a number of ways that freegans could find themselves in trouble.