For many people, dumpster diving seems like a simple way to get some free stuff. Many households, retail stores, grocers, and other entities toss out items that are still in usable condition, which makes letting the goods end up at the dump seem like a waste. However, before you take anything from a garbage bin, it’s important to understand the legalities of dumpster diving. If you are wondering about states where dumpster diving is legal, here’s what you need to know.
What Is Dumpster Diving?
Dumpster diving is the act of going through items that others have thrown out – usually, goods placed in or next to garbage cans, recycling bins, or large dumpsters – to find pieces that are worth keeping. Then, if a suitable item is found, taking it.
People dumpster dive for many reasons. Some are looking for products they can use. Others are focused on reselling or upcycling the items. When it comes to food, some people eat what they gather during a dumpster diving trip.
Dumpster diving can actually go by several names, with most of them relating to the person’s approach or goals. For example, someone looking for metal that they can bring to a recycling center for a cash payment may be “scrapping,” while someone grabbing discarded furniture next to dumpsters or trash cans could be “curb shopping.” If the person is looking for food they can eat, they may be called a “freegan.”
States Where Dumpster Diving Is Legal
Technically, dumpster diving is legal in all 50 states, mainly thanks to California vs. Greenwood Supreme Court ruling. If trash is left out in “public,” there isn’t an expectation of privacy. Additionally, the discarding person is largely abandoning their ownership of the items by placing them in the garbage when the container is in a public area.
However, the definitions of “public” and “reasonable expectation of privacy” are often debated in this context. Additionally, the rules outlined by the Supreme Court only apply as long as they don’t conflict with local ordinances. As a result, there can be municipal laws that outline when the activity is or isn’t considered legal.
When Dumpster Diving Is Illegal
While state laws may not make dumpster diving illegal, that doesn’t mean all garbage is fair game. For example, there are laws stating that if a dumpster is on private property, it isn’t in a public space. As a result, accessing it would be considered trespassing, and the person still has a reasonable expectation of privacy, making dumpster diving illegal in this scenario.
In some areas, a sign simply marking the dumpster as “private” is enough, regardless of its location. If there is a lock on the dumpster, that also makes accessing it illegal.
Additionally, most garbage processing areas – like city dumps – ban trash picking activities. Even if the items are in a part that’s accessible by members of the public, such as drop-off locations, taking anything that was left there by someone else isn’t permitted.
There is one broad exception to dumpster diving, even when the container itself is fair game. If the person going through the trash is doing so with the intention of committing a crime or, by accessing the garbage in a particular manner that involves committing a crime, that activity is illegal.
For example, if a person was looking for paperwork that would allow them to steal a person’s identity, the fact that the garbage is in a public space is irrelevant. That activity is illegal.
Similarly, if the person is going through a dumpster and causing a lot of noise in the middle of the night, that could qualify as disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace, leading to misdemeanor criminal charges. If they are tossing garbage out of the dumpster and onto the ground as they look for items, that’s littering, which is illegal.
How to Figure Out If Dumpster Diving Is Legal in Your Area
If you want to determine if dumpster diving is legal in your area, you’ll need to research local ordinances. By examining laws at the municipal level, you can figure out what activities are permitted and which are against the rules.
Resources like Municode can be simple places to start. You can also head to your city or county’s website to find details about local ordinances or run a simple Google search to track down the regulations.
Additionally, be aware of any additional laws that could relate to dumpster diving activities. Littering, disturbing the peace, and many others could apply. It’s important to examine the situation from every possible angle. That way, you can determine which laws apply.
Do you know of any other states where dumpster diving is legal? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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