As the NSW Return and Earn Initiative started to heat up with warm participation from the community, a new issue has also emerged. There are a number of reports stating that privately-owned recycling and garbage bins are scavenged for empty bottles and cans. 

All around New South Wales, residents wake up in the morning greeted with unpleasant scenes where their garbage and recycling bins, as well as their piles of items that are to be recycled, are missing. Non-recyclable items are scattered on the curbside. Everything is a mess. A couple of corresponding questions have popped up. Is taking bottles and cans from someone else’s bin allowed? Is this act a crime?

This situation is a sort of a dilemma. Scavengers, dumpster divers, or people who practise extreme freeganism may argue that discarded materials that are in the bin are considered to be a “free-for-all”, ready for the taking. The owners can claim that they are the rightful owners of these items and taking from them is an act of stealing. Is there any truth to these statements? 

Let’s see.

A Moral and Ethical Issue

Let it be clear that the situation can be analysed from different perspectives. There are owners of plastic and recyclable waste who claim that such recyclables were collected and piled up to be refunded at a later date. They claim that the items were taken without their knowledge and permission.

Other owners say that as they treat those plastic containers and cans as discards, it’s better for them to have other people take the rubbish to clean up their yard and avoid the hassle. It’s also better to have the less fortunate make use of the 10 cents they get for each can or plastic container.

There are also people who say that they don’t mind handing out the lot for others to make use of as long as the latter is polite and courteous enough to ask the owners that they’ll be taking the items. In short, they have to ask permission first. 

What the Law Says

People are quick to say that taking stuff from someone’s bin is stealing. Well, there’s truth to this. Let’s look at the definition presented by the law.

By definition, the term theft is said to be an act in which one person appropriates a property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of such property. This can be interpreted as taking the plastic containers and cans from a privately-owned bin is considered stealing.

Even the judicial courts have made some statements. They addressed the issue by stating that “The contents of someones’ bin is the legal possession of the property owner when on private land and of the local council when the items are on the curbside for collection.

The Solution

As you can see, there’s a thin line between stealing and taking another person’s discards. The issue depends on the meeting of the minds. There will always be two parties involved in this kind of situation: the owner and the collector/scavenger. 

The best thing to do when faced with this kind of scenario is to have both parties talk. The collector just has to ask permission from the owner about taking the cans and bottles, should the circumstance arise. State the purpose and wait for the confirmation to take the items. Make sure to clean up the mess.

No one would want their property, including their bins to be wantonly raided for items without their permission. It is the owners’ right to keep them or give them away. Let’s just be respectful to one another.

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