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Dumpster diving, or taking discarded food from the trash (sometimes called freeganism), isn’t new—but prosecuting those who dive is news to us. That’s what just went down in not-so-jolly old England, where The Guardian reports, “A man will stand trial next month after being caught taking some tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese” from the bins behind a supermarket.
Three men reportedly absconded with about $55 worth of discarded produce and a trolley from the market. “Initially arrested for burglary,” reports the Guardian, “the three men were charged under an obscure section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act,” after being discovered in “an enclosed area…for an unlawful purpose, namely stealing food.” The Crown Prosecution Service is pressing the case because, “we feel there is significant public interest in prosecuting these three individuals.”
Restaurants and supermarkets are often left with unsellable food on their hands, and while many of them distribute those goods to food banks, some offer it directly to the hungry. Some of those places might carefully place the food in two bags to keep the food clean, placing it within easy reach somewhere on the property. (One freegan we spoke to fondly recalled a pizza parlor that would plop a bag full of slices on the front doorstep when it closed up shop.) Other restaurants will still trash those leftovers, but they’ll leave it at the top of the heap. Then there are eateries that lock their trash cans to prevent people from going through them.
It clearly remains a touchy issue; we reached out to seven cafés and supermarkets around the nation, and none would go on the record with their opinions about this case. The exception was a lone pizza parlor in the Northwest, which, at one time, put out whole pies on top of—rather than inside of—their trash bins at the end of each day.
They don’t anymore. “It got a little bit out of control,” said a manager. “It used to be that people were really respectful, and people who were hungry took a couple slices off the top.” Then the parlor’s policy hit local blogs, and suddenly “all sorts of different kids came in” who “clearly weren’t homeless.” Teenagers would expectantly crowd the restaurant ten minutes before closing time.
When told of the case in the United Kingdom, the manager said, “I mean, I think it’s personally a little crazy to prosecute over that.”
Dumpster divers, no surprise, agree. We spoke to magazine editor Sarah Mirk, who wrote a foraging piece about “The Dumpster Brunch” for the Portland Mercury, that brings up some obvious dangers of the practice. When Mirk tossed open the lid of a doughnut shop’s trash bin, she was horrified when “the beady eyes of the Western Hemisphere’s three fattest rats met ours—maple bars clenched in their teeth, and bellies distended.”
When told of the U.K. freegans, Mirk said, “That seems ridiculous to me, because who are they really hurting with that? Is somebody else gonna use that trash? Who’s the victim of that crime?”
Mirk has never gotten sick from her dumpster dives, which she largely did as a journalist and “just for fun, to get good free food.” She was startled by the question of whether someone would eat something touching the inside of a bin; “you open up the trash can, you see if anything looks hygienic. If it’s in a bag that looks like it’s clean… You just use common sense.” Another dumpster diver—one who, unlike Mirk, still practices it—emails to say that isn’t always about the money: “I make plenty of money and don’t need to dumpster dive. I do it to reduce food waste and my ecological footprint.”
According to Freegan.info, dumpster diving in the U.S. is legal so long as there’s no sign posted forbidding trespassing. If there is a dumpster leaning against a building, or inside a fenced enclosure, you could hit trouble with the police.
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