In the face of rising food waste, freeganism has been gaining popularity as people (known as freegans) turn to dumpsters to find food that has been discarded but is still in edible condition. However, can this practice of dumpster-diving get freegans arrested for theft in Singapore?
Is Freeganism Theft?
Under section 378 of the Singapore Penal Code, theft occurs when one dishonestly takes movable property out of another’s possession without that person’s consent.
While it is possible to steal lost property, taking abandoned property will not be theft since the owner would have abandoned possession and ownership of the item.
Thus, if discarding an item constitutes abandonment, the freegan’s act of taking the item cannot be said to constitute theft. Here are the legal positions on this matter overseas and in Singapore:
In the United States (US), the Supreme Court has established that trash will be considered abandoned when it is placed in trash bags in unlocked dumpsters by the curbside.
Thus, in the case of California v Greenwood, where a person had left his trash on the curb in front of his house, the court held that that person had no expectation of privacy to the trash. This is because garbage at the side of streets is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public”.
Hence, it appears that freegans in the US will not be charged with theft for taking items from dumpsters located along streets. However, this may be subject to individual state laws regarding freeganism.
That said, freegans in the US may still commit theft if they were to rummage through dumpsters in shops. This is because these dumpsters are still on private property and are not publicly accessible to others.
In the United Kingdom (UK), it has been held in the case of Williams v Philips that items in dustbins on private property are not abandoned property. This is because the owners had put out the rubbish intending to transfer it to a garbage collection authority for disposal. They were not abandoning it and leaving it out for anybody to take away. Until the garbage collection authority had collected the rubbish, the rubbish remained the property of the owner.
Thus, in Rickets v Basildon Magistrates Court, a man was convicted of theft for taking clothing from bins outside an Oxfam charity shop. Although the bags of clothing had been discarded, they were not abandoned. The owner had intended for the bags to go to the Oxfam shop.
Therefore, it appears that mere disposal of items is insufficient to constitute abandonment in the UK. There has to be a cessation of any intention to possess that item and of any intention to exclude others from its possession. Hence, it has to be proven that the owner had the intention to give up his rights in the goods.
However, taking items from public bins in city centres might not constitute theft. Under section 2(1)(c) of the UK Theft Act 1968, a thief is not dishonest if he takes property “in the belief that the person to whom the property belongs cannot be discovered by taking reasonable steps.” This potentially applies to retrieving food waste in city centres, as the freegan might believe that he cannot find out to whom the food waste belongs.
The law on abandonment in Singapore is currently unsettled. Lawyer Ronald Wong is of the opinion that the concept of abandonment may not be recognised here:
“As a matter of policy, it would be problematic if where someone disposes property, whether intentionally or accidentally, it would be deemed that he no longer has any right to the property. It would be prudent to take the Williams v Philips approach [in English law] whereby a person is taken to make a ‘gift’ of property in their rubbish to the rubbish collection company. And if there was an unintentional disposal, then there was no intention of such a gift, and the title to the property remains with the person.
If it were any other way, the practical and legal repercussions would be quite severe, with everything ranging from the losing of valuables to corporate espionage (people dumpster-diving for documents etc.)”
That said, even though Singapore’s position on the law on abandonment is currently unclear, section 16 of the Environmental Public Health Act provides that all rubbish brought by anyone to a public disposal facility, or collected by employees, contractors or agents of the National Environmental Agency (NEA), will be NEA property.
Therefore, freegans who take food from public disposal facilities or from the rubbish collected by NEA personnel could be committing theft against the NEA, even if not against the food’s original owner.
In any case, section 10(1) of the Environmental Public Health (Public Cleansing) Regulations prohibits “raking or grubbing” through refuse bins, refuse bin centres or refuse vehicles, or removing things from them. Those convicted will be guilty of an offence (even if not for theft) and will be liable to fines up to $5,000 depending on whether they are repeat offenders. Freegans may wish to take note of this when combing through trash bins for food.
How Can Freegans Avoid Contravening the Law?
To avoid contravening the law, freegans can consider contacting organisations that collect and distribute leftovers from restaurants and supermarkets to receive food from them. Additionally, freegans can also consider volunteering at these organisations to assist in collection and distribution to help reduce food wastage further.
Furthermore, freegans can also ask for permission from shop owners and staff before looking through dumpsters. Freegans in Singapore have had success seeking permission from shop owners before dumpster diving, and this ensures that there is no misunderstanding between the two parties.