Taking Goods from a Wheelie Bin: Is it Illegal?

If something has been thrown away, is it illegal to take it? Sometimes, according to the law. Technically it is theft if you take something from a bin or skip, though whether it is illegal depends on the motivation of the person taking it, and whether or not the property has a rightful owner.

Back in 2011, an Essex woman admitted handling stolen goods after taking potato waffles, pies, and packets of ham that had been discarded in a bin outside of a Tesco Express store after a power cut had caused large amounts of food to spoil.

The woman denied theft, and said she only got one bag of food. She added that many other people took food from the bin. Her defence was that Tesco no longer wanted to sell the food, and rather than let it go to waste, she took it to feed her family. But did she have the right to take it?

Tesco said that the contents of the bin belonged to them and that they always strive to reuse or recycle waste wherever possible.

What is theft?

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.”

Just because someone throws something away, it doesn’t mean that they don’t own it and if it can be proven that the property had a rightful owner, it would be deemed illegal to take it. But if someone honestly thinks that it’s okay to take something, even if it belongs to someone else, they might not be guilty. Theft has to include an element of dishonesty.

Legal precedent

If the person who threw away the goods intended to throw them away and wanted to claim no further ownership, this would be classed as abandonment. If goods are abandoned, they legally have no owner and anyone who takes them would not be guilty of theft.

In one case in Basildon, a man was charged with theft after he was seen taking bags of clothing from outside a charity shop. The court ruled that even though the clothes had been discarded, they were left there for the charity shop, so they hadn’t been abandoned.

Freeganism

Freegans forage in bins for food and other items that are thrown away, as a way of demonstrating against consumerism and bringing attention to what they say is a throwaway culture. Food retailers throw away millions of tonnes of food every year, and much of this is still edible.