Prosecuting people for taking food from bins is an attack on common sense

It is thought that up to 50% of edible and healthy food is wasted across the EU

It is thought that up to 50% of edible and healthy food is wasted across the EU

When you put something into a bin you disown it. You’re saying that you no longer want possession of the item you have just placed into the rubbish. When someone else finds value in that item, and takes it from the bin, it is not stealing as there is not an owner to be stolen from*.

This simple sentiment has been missed by the Crown Prosecution Service who are pushing ahead with the prosecution of three men charged under an obscure section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act for taking food that had been thrown out by the supermarket Iceland.

For those of you unfamiliar with the 1824 Vagrancy Act, it is the piece of legislation that outlaws ‘Persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds’ and specifically prohibits the ‘intent to insult any female’.

Hilariously, the CPS has judged this case to be ‘in the public interest’. I think it is clearly not in the public’s interest and here is why:

Perhaps most importantly there is a clear moral case for not prosecuting them – what they did was totally harmless. The only people it may harm are those who eat food past its use-by date. That’s fine, it’s their choice. As a rule of thumb, I think people should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others (hat tip J.S. Mill).

An attack on those who seek to enjoy this free food is in actual fact an attack on our freedom. The state has no place prosecuting someone for doing something that harms no-one else.

This isn’t to say the state doesn’t have a role to play in tackling this problem of supermarket waste. Last year Labour MP, Kerry McCarthy, tabled a bill that would force supermarkets to donate excess food to charities. A great idea that should be welcomed!

In the words of Henry Smith, Conservative MP for Crawley, “Food waste is not only an environmental concern but a social problem too. It is morally right that large retailers should make available food that would be dumped anyway to those most in need or struggling.”

But as this Bill is still a long way from becoming law though let’s hope that the same MPs speak out against this preposterous proposed prosecution that is so clearly not in the public interest.

*I am fully are that the law of land says otherwise but the law of the land is often wrong – as it is in this case. I also accept that there are some cases where the ‘thrown away’ items still hold value – for example glass in recycling bins, or clothes to go to charity shops.


Good on the founder and CEO of Icelands, Malcolm Walker, who earlier today tweeted this:


Filed under Food and Drink, Politics, Social comment

3 responses to “Prosecuting people for taking food from bins is an attack on common sense

  1. Unfortunately there is a sensible albeit nasty reason to render throwaway food beyond the reach of the public. Many businesses make more money from restricting supply than by increasing it and of course anyone eating free food isn’t buying food. This appears to be a case of the old bill/CPS maintaining the capitalist order. The fact that our public sector servants appear, in this instance, to be more zealous capitalists than the owner/founder of the business makes this very puzzling. Maybe the CPS will prosecute Iceland for inciting an act of vagrancy!


  2. Catherine

    I agree wholeheartedly. The amount of food thrown away in this country is absurd, especially when you consider the number of people in the world that are starving to death, and if people can make good use of something that would else be wasted then go for it. Spending money on prosecution benefits nobody.

    NB. Not just food – ours is a very wasteful society, I suppose in part because it is also a rather materialistic society. Charity shops and sites like freecycle make a start in reducing the amount of things that go to landfill but I’m sure there’s a lot more that could be done to encourage recycling and cut down waste.


  3. Jennifer

    Great article Steve! In your defense I think that giving to charity and recycling are separate from throwing away, the intention is different and as you maintain ownership that that item ends up in the place you decide it should go. Unlike garbage which once ‘thrown away’ you retain no claim as to where it goes!


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