Stephen Taylor: One person’s rubbish is another’s treasure

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WITHOUT wanting to align myself as belonging to a family with criminal tendencies, I do know that one relation of mine, who shall remain nameless, has succumbed to the temptation of bin rummaging in the city where she lived.

This took the form of removing food in sealed packets from the rubbish bin behind a shop to reduce her food bills and use up perfectly good food which otherwise would have been landfill or incinerated.

Apparently this activity is illegal as defined by the law on ‘theft by finding’.

This has hit the news recently when a 21-year-old woman helped herself to pies and ham and potato waffles from the bin at the back of her Tesco store in Essex.

There was, on this occasion, a large amount of food discarded as a result of an earlier power failure in the Tesco store, and they had to bin it as required by their own food safety guidelines.

So the staff put this spoiled stock in the bins, awaiting the usual bin collection.

The woman saw this waste and knew it was their ‘rubbish’, so helped herself and took home quite a large amount which she thought would keep their family meals supplemented for a fortnight.

No sooner had she arrived home than the police were banging on her door demanding she open it. She alleged that they said if she didn’t open it they would use a battering-ram to force the door open.

She did open the door to them, and as soon as she did they handcuffed her and charged her with theft by finding. The case is due to go in front of the magistrates later this month.

I found this explanation of the internet: “The law on theft by finding is complex and troublesome. Technically, theft is the dishonest appropriation by a person of an item belonging to another, unless they reasonably believe that the person has relinquished claim to it.

“Therefore, where you find a £10 note in the street, you cannot reasonably steal it (unless you saw the person that dropped it) because it would be impossible for anyone to claim it (unless they really did note down the serial number).

“However, office furniture, and other identifiable items (like the £10 note, but in a wallet) can be stolen by finding them.

“The difficulty comes with rubbish, which usually people have relinquished ownership of, but in certain cases, it has been held that bin rummaging (for instance for personal data) has been theft.”

I have witnessed people removing items from skips which I wouldn’t have dreamed thinking it was theft of any kind. One person’s rubbish is another’s treasure.

My only thought in Tesco’s defense, is what if the person who took the food had gone down with food poisoning – under the law would Tesco have been responsible by allowing it to be removed from their bins? I hope not, but you never know these days!

So from a distance it does appear to be an odd use of police time and priorities.

And it will be interesting to see what the magistrates make of it. I wonder for example, can the police be charged with wasting police time? That would be an interesting outcome.

Might the accused commended for reducing the carbon emissions that would have been produced by other means of disposing of the rubbish?

Might she be hailed as an entrepreneurial example of Big Society by the Prime Minister? We will have to wait and see!