Totally rubbish

A couple of months ago, I was horrified to be woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of someone (or some people) going through the bins for my block of flats. A strange thought came into my head: I am being robbed! That rubbish is mine! Somehow, even though the matter in question was rubbish, I still felt somehow possessive over it. Why is this? Is it justified?

I don’t need to be reminded that perhaps there is something illicit about going through somebody’s rubbish, and I’m sure if someone wants to steal my identity that is probably one of the first places they would look, but I want to put that modern-day dilemma aside for a moment.

Let’s think about possession. Let’s think about possession of rubbish.

Is it illegal to take someone’s trash?

BBC magazine wrote an article on this way back in 2011, and it’s an interesting read. In it, it states that the only real crime involved in taking someone’s rubbish is theft. The article is specifically speaking about a case of skipping – taking food from supermarket bins, which is (in my opinion) very different from what was happened outside my flats. The article quotes the mighty law itself as a good enough starting point:

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

Right. So there are three things at stake here:

  • Appropriating property belonging to another
  • Being dishonest
  • Intending to permanently deprive the person of it

Here’s where the problem lies with dumpster diving. Yes, you might still be appropriating property belonging to another, but the other two conditions become hazy. Take the last one – it stands to reason that is you permanently take something away from someone, you are permanently depriving them of it. But depriving insinuates a negative emotion. When someone throws something away, they have already permanently deprived themselves of it. After throwing something away, transferring it to exterior bins, it is only a matter of time before it is picked up, whisked away and transported to a landfill or alternative waste storage facility. Are we saying that taking something out of a bin is theft, then if someone took something from a landfill, it is also stealing? We might laugh and say no! Of course not! But why should there be a difference? Is it because it is clearly in a more permanent state of disuse? Who does that waste belong to? Once transported to a landfill, does the waste in landfill belong to the original person, or does it now belong to the landfill owners? Public, then it’s the government; Private, and it’s the private company.

So at some point, whether it’s when we throw something in our bins at home, or when it goes to landfill, we say goodbye to our rubbish and release our ownership from it. In many cases, I imagine that many people don’t want to be associated with their rubbish, and want to disown it as quickly as possible. HOWEVER, that does not mean that they would be okay with anyone else looking at it. Because, of course, it is not just food we throw away. Letters, notes to ourselves, cards etc. All these things say a lot about us. Perhaps people are more likely to allow landfill waste to be owned by someone else because it is communal – who’s to say which shopping list is mine and which is my next door neighbours?

This leads me onto the second requirement: dishonestly. This is where it gets particularly blurry. If someone is going through another person’s bins to rummage around for something to eat or something thrown away that they can use or sell – is this being dishonest? Are they dishonestly appropriating the trash? I mean – the fact that I was woken up in the middle of the night is not a good sign – anything done sneakily in darkness screams dishonesty. However, when it comes to large supermarkets who have thrown food away that is clearly not going to be used – where is the dishonesty in taking it if you can use it?

I think it is strange that monetary factors are not taken into consideration. People think it’s unfair to steal food from rubbish bins partly because we all normally have to pay for our food – right? If something is out of date, or discarded in the trash, does it lose all monetary value as well as its personal value to a person?

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

We’ve all heard this saying before. But it implies a value shifting process, whereby something that is considered to have no value by one person might be considered to have lots of value by another. And in our 21st century society – how do we measure value? Money. Capital.

If this is true (and I think it is) then stealing also means depriving someone of the monetary value of something, not just depriving them of the item itself. Normally we trade items such as food for money – stealing from a dumpster bypasses this. For instance, if I throw away an old t-shirt, and someone finds it in the garbage. Should they have paid me for it? If I had taken it to a charity shop, they would have paid something for it. So it is stealing if they take it from the trash?

I think all this comes down to something really important. Whether or not you think that stealing from bins is illegal or should be classed as stealing, surely the bigger problem here is that clearly we throw away far too many valuable items! If someone is stealing things from your bins – re-evaluate what you are throwing away! You might even save some money, and solve your bin-raiding problems.

by Layla Hendow

PhD researcher at University of Hull

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