The Unusual Suspects: How Everyday Citizens are Breaking the Law for Mother Earth


Some people like to push the legal edge when it comes to going green. And some people – for example, those who spin articles into the green web-o-sphere and want to keep doing it – would never advocate that our fellow citizens break the law in any which way or form. (This is us, adjusting our green halos.) But that doesn’t mean we can’t report on the ways in which everyday eco-minded folks are skirting, pushing and downright flouting the laws of the land for Mother Earth.

How do these daring greenies skate the blue line of justice? Public perception of green lawbreakers may be the people who trash Hummers or set fire to housing developments – these are the stories that make headlines and generate name-calling. Then there are the people who take a serving of Mother Earth without a side of eco-terrorism. They are just Joes and Janes who may or may not pick a piece of fallen fruit off a public tree.

Guerilla gardening

Guerilla gardening is the illicit cultivation of public space. It’s a worldwide movement – here’s the web page of guerilla gardeners in London. And yes, it is illegal, since you are tilling the soil of land you do not own. Guerilla gardening guides suggest following these three rules: Use only land that is unused or unwanted, leave the land in better condition than when you found it, and don’t get caught.

We spoke with guerilla gardener Mike Lieberman, who uses his New York City fire escape as a garden. His take on the movement is concise: “I’m not sure why planting something could be considered illegal or be considered harmful. I think that knocking down trees and building up on the land is more dangerous and harmful than guerilla gardening.”

Recycling someone else’s trash

I live next door to an elderly woman. I often do it for her. Most of her trash goes out in plastic grocery bags that reveal its contents. So I can see that they are often filled with bits of paper, tin cans, glass bottles, banana peels, coffee grinds, and regular rubbish. So most of the time, I’m picking through her trash to get the glass into the blue bins, the banana peels in the green bins, and the rest of it in the black bins. Usually I end up covered in coffee grounds and residual apple juice. (And yes, it might be time to move.)

I am not the only greenie who has been known to pick a plastic bottle out of a trash can and place it in the recycling. But am I breaking any laws? Not so, according to my local police. I was advised that once someone discards their trash, it no longer belonged to them. Does this mean that greenies should start raiding neighbor’s trash cans on private property? Not if you want to be arrested for trespassing”¦

Taking fruit

Ever wonder why you can’t just can’t reach up and pluck the apple from the communal tree? Have at it, because you can! At least in California, where the law stating that any fruit that grows on or over public land is community property, even if the trunk is rooted in a private yard. This has given birth to the Fallen Fruit movement. In Los Angeles, people plot the public lands to access the free fruit, complete with joint jam-making sessions and more. Just don’t go picking from your neighbor’s tree, unless you’re trying to pick a fight. (See Neighborhood Fruit for information about legal fruit harvesting.)


Would the earth do better without synthetic fibers containing polyester, elastane or Lycra? I’m going to go with yes on this one, despite my love of the Spanx after certain carb-filled meal. Nylon, for instance, takes 30 to 40 years to decompose. So wouldn’t it be better if we could just all run free in the breeze?

Maybe so, but the law is ambiguous. There are no federal laws that ban or allow nudism. However, nudism has never been guaranteed by the Constitution as a “freedom of expression.” With no federal precedent, it’s up to the states and local municipalities to decide if it is legal to let loose your clothes on the street. And, well, most of the time, you’re going to find yourself in handcuffs for indecent exposure if you shed your synthetic skin. So – maybe not, Adam and Eve.

Public urination

Really, guys? Yes, we are talking to the men out there who like to save more water than the next. (Though kudos to the women who attempt it.) Michael Edwards of Green Lifestyle Magazine points out that you can pee in the shower to save water. According to Edwards, “We bet there are plenty of guys who won’t admit it, but do it every morning. If you’re one of those guys, urinate with a clean eco conscience!” And others point out that you can pee in a cup or bottle and dispose of it outside. Some people even use urine as a fertilizer.

But is it legal? According to the experts, public urination laws are primarily governed by state and local laws, and these vary by jurisdiction.  You could get charged with indecent exposure or indecency.

So do we suggest guerilla gardening in the nude? No (let’s leave the nudity to PETA). But do we suggest you pluck a piece of stray fruit in a communal space? It’s up to your green conscious to decide.

Image: Katie Tegtmeyer

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.