Dumpster Diving Should Be Legal

23/11/2015 5:02 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

I'm inside the dumpster, passing an assortment of individually wrapped supermarket products to my friends outside. I've recovered two blocks of Mersey Valley sharp cheddar, a few packets of Thins crisps, five or six cartons of organic free range eggs, multiple bunches of organic bananas and a lifetime supply of bread.

This process -- of collecting discarded products from commercial bins -- is called dumpster diving, and I've been doing it regularly for almost three years. In that time I estimate I would have rescued, shared and eaten at least $15000 worth of food.

It's a good way to source free food but it's also a form of protest to the huge, relatively ignored problem of global food wastage. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly one third of all food produced globally goes to waste. That equates to about 1.3 billion tonnes of wasted food per year.

With two backpacks full of premium groceries, I toss a couple more loaves of chia seed rye to my friends outside before the police car arrives.

"Are you that desperate?" the senior constable wants to know.

"Look at this stuff," gestures my friend, "it's not a matter of desperation."

"Yeah, right." she concedes. "So they just chuck all this stuff out, do they?"

The short answer is yes, supermarket chains waste food on an immense scale, and this scene is the rule rather than the exception. But after a couple of attempts at explaining the problem and a curt discussion with the manager of the store, we are threatened with charges for theft and forced to throw all the food back in the bin.

Is dumpster diving actually illegal?

In the USA, legal precedence suggests that dumpster diving is not a crime. The case of California v Greenwood 1988, has been used to claim that as long as a dumpster diver's not trespassing and local regulations don't specifically prohibit it, scavenging food falls within the law. In that case, it was declared, "garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public."

In the UK, Dr Sean Thomas, senior lecturer in commercial law at the University of Leicester, attests "freeganism is not an activity that is dishonest in a way so as to attract criminal sanction." The basis of this claim is that discarded food is "abandoned property" and therefore can't be considered stolen.

However, under Australian law the concept of abandonment is still a contentious one.

According to a legal analysis of abandonment published by Melbourne university, "judges have equivocated and not come to any firm conclusion about whether abandonment is legally possible."

Even when it is clear that the original owner has forfeited possession of an item, the individual who recovers it may be at risk of breaking the law.

In 2010, a Prahran man received a $900 fine and a 12-month good behaviour bond after taking two bikes put out on a nature strip for council collection, Fairfax Media reported. "I was gobsmacked, I couldn't believe it... I'm not interested in hard rubbish any more," said Simon, who asked to have his surname withheld.

The legal ownership of discarded property generally depends on local council laws. My local council --Moreland, which encompasses some of Melbourne's northern suburbs -- assumes ownership of any property laid out on the street during their annual hard rubbish collection period but has no claim over illegally dumped rubbish.

Unsurprisingly, big retail businesses are less forgiving. Elsie Parker, a dumpster diver from Northern NSW, was fined $350 in 2012 for taking material from a Big W bin that she intended to use as art supplies.

The official offence stated on Elsie's fine reads: "Goods in personal custody suspected being stolen." The terminology is disturbingly vague and the premise slipshod; her punishment is based on suspicion rather than established guilt. But it sets a precedent for Australian dumpster divers: though there is no specific law that prohibits it, a person may be fined for dumpster diving.

As far as Elsie is concerned, dumpster diving is illegal.

"At no point in the legally defined contract has the dumpster diver a right to possession of the contents of the dumpster... Of course from a humane or a bio-conservative ethical point of view this is absurd."


"Dumpster diving goes to the essence of the legal tension between Magna Carta and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," says Elsie.

Her point -- that it's more important to feed the hungry than punish them for unlawfully scavenging -- is solid. But perhaps this is a case for local law reform rather than a flaw in the Magna Carta itself.

In May this year France became the first nation to outlaw large-scale food waste, making it compulsory for supermarkets with excess stock to donate it to charities, rather than throw it away or destroy it.

This legislation, unprecedented anywhere in the world, has drawn attention to the global issue of large-scale corporate food wastage.

In January this year, Rob Greenfield, a dumpster diver and activist from the US, made an open offer to anyone who is arrested or ticketed for dumpster diving. "I promise to pay the ticket(s), get media coverage to the issue, and make sure that you are in safe hands," he wrote on his website.

Greenfield's objective is to draw attention to the issue of food waste and "put pressure on grocery stores to donate their excess food rather than dumping it." He claims the main reason supermarkets discard food is because they fear liability for donating expired food. However, in the US, not a single lawsuit has been filed against a grocery store that has donated to a food rescue program.

In Australia, charities such as Second Bite and Food Not Bombs accept donations from the big supermarkets and redistribute food to those in need. What is less publicised, but well known to anyone who has bothered to look into the big supermarket bins, is that there is still plenty of food going to waste.

People I've introduced to dumpster diving are initially fascinated that so much is going to waste, then later, when it sinks in, driven to salvage it by a moral imperative. Of all the fad diets that ricochet around social media, dumpster diving has the lowest impact on the environment.

Those who know little about dumpster diving are generally disgusted at the thought of getting food from a bin, but in reality, most products are individually wrapped and untainted. Fruit and vegetables are often simply blemished or misshapen.

The primary case I can see against dumpster diving is the damage it may do to the image of a business.

It's unseemly for the local supermarket to have dumpster divers rummaging through their refuse because it points to more serious issues of inequality and irresponsible wastage. Even the most conservative people I know, people who would never even consider dumpster diving, agree that it's completely absurd that supermarket chains indiscriminately waste food on a global scale while people go hungry.

Dumpster diving may not be completely legal in Australia but in the face of global hunger, climate change and the strain on natural resources, it seems ridiculous to punish people for utilising what would otherwise go to waste.

In an ideal world, the big supermarkets would donate their excess stock to those who need it, but every dumpster diver knows that this is simply not happening. Until then, people like me will continue to dumpster dive, despite the legal risks.


Nat Kassel blogs at Global Hobo.

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