Who, What, Why: Is taking rubbish illegal?

Two industrial size rubbish bins in London

A woman has admitted handling stolen goods after being accused of taking potato waffles, pies, and 100 packets of ham from a bin outside of a Tesco Express in Essex. But if something is thrown away, when is it illegal to take it?

Sacha Hall, 22, denied a charge of theft, which was left to lie on file, over taking the items said to be worth a total of £215, which the grocery store had discarded after a power cut had spoiled large amounts of food.

Hall said dozens of people had taken food from the Tesco bins but that she had only received a bag, mainly containing ham, brought to her flat by a friend.

After her arrest, Hall said: "Tesco clearly did not want the food. They dumped it and rather than see it go to waste, I thought I could help feed me and my family for a week or two." But is it illegal to take something that has been thrown away?

The answer

  • Once something is thrown away it isn't necessarily ownerless
  • If someone honestly thinks it is okay to take something, even if it belongs to someone else, they could be found not guilty

According to the law in England and Wales: "A person commits theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it."

Just because someone throws something away, does not mean they don't own it. So if it can be proven that the property that was thrown away had a rightful owner, it would be illegal to take it.

Diseased pigs

One precedent-setting example from 1877 was the case of a diseased buried pig. According to legal text Archbold's Pleading, Evidence, and Practice in Criminal Cases, even if someone discards something and does not intend to use it again, they can retain ownership of it.

"The carcass of a diseased pig, which had been killed and buried by the owner in his own land, and of which he intended to make no further use, was still held to remain his property, so as to support an indictment for larceny against a person who afterwards disinterred and sold the carcass," according to the ruling.

a pig in a stable A farmer who killed and buried his diseased pig, it was ruled, maintained ownership of the pig

"The rule on abandonment is not just getting rid of it," says Rob Chambers, who teaches property law at University College London. "One needs to intend to abandon it."

In the case of Rickets v Basildon Magistrates court, a man was charged with theft after he was seen on CCTV taking bags of clothing from outside a charity shop.

The judge ruled that the bags, although they had been discarded, were intended by the person who left them to go to the charity shop and so were not actually abandoned.

In the case of Hall and Tesco, the shop said the contents of the bin belonged to them.

Tesco, which sends thousands of pounds of leftover meat to be burned for electricity, has said it works to "minimise waste and where possible will seek to reuse and recycle it".

Justified actions

An act of theft requires a "mental element of dishonesty", says John Spencer, professor of law at Cambridge. "It's not dishonest if you genuinely believe it is okay to do it."

He adds that it is not enough to justify your actions to yourself. "Thinking it's all right means society accepts it as proper."

WHO, WHAT, WHY?

Question mark

A part of BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer questions behind the headlines

Karyn Tadeusz, who specialises in criminal law, says that while "technically speaking it is theft, a lot of people are of the misconception that property in a bin or skip is there for the taking".

The distinction lies in the motivation of the person doing the taking.

"People do that kind of thing innocently not thinking they are committing an offence," Tadeusz says.

Members of the Freegan movement have watched the Hall case with interest. Freegans forage for discarded food thrown out by shops and and try to bring attention to what they see as wasteful culture.

In Britain it is estimated 5.3 million tonnes of edible food is thrown away each year.

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

  • Spanner CrabEdible images

    Are these the best food photographs of the past year?


  • Beckford's TowerFolly or fact?

    The unlikely debt capital of Britain


  • European starlingBird-brained

    How 60 starlings multiplied into a nightmare flock of 200 million


  • Observatory in Chile with sun in the backgroundStar struck

    Why tourists are flocking to Chile's observatories


  • Two people using sign language Signing out

    The decline of regional dialects for the deaf


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.