Dumpster Diving and Its Legal Parameters


Dumpster diving is an activity that definitely helps reduce waste if done properly. It is as good as following the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. In effect, dumpster diving supports sustainability.

To a certain extent, dumpster diving has become common knowledge, especially with the help of social media. YouTubers, TikTokers, and bloggers are able to share their experiences and knowledge about dumpster diving using their online platforms, aiding those interested or planning to try it out to learn and understand how it works.

Dumpster diving may seem intriguing and even fun at first glance, but there are several factors that can make it dangerous or illegal.

If you plan to dumpster dive or have already done so, it might interest you to know the acceptable ways of doing this. How do you avoid being accused of illegal conduct while scavenging through other people’s trash?

Why Do People Dumpster Dive?

First, let’s tackle how it all began and why people even considered it was all right to go through trash and use items that have been worn and used by others. Knowing their reasons helps you understand why dumpster diving is not totally frowned upon by society.

The term “Dumpster Diving” was coined in the 1980s, but it’s possible people have been doing this way before there was a name for it.

Dumpsters, or curbs in areas populated by well-off individuals, usually contain used or “pre-loved” items that are still in good condition and safe to use. Some people are compulsive buyers or love adding new things to their collection. Others want to keep up with certain trends no matter what or switch up their style and redecorate their homes accordingly. When they’ve had their fix or the trends shift once again, they end up disposing of items that have been used only for a short time.

Commercial dumpsters owned by grocery stores, retail stores, and cosmetic shops often contain items that are thrown out a few days before their expiry or once they have gone out of style.

Therefore, the quote “One man's trash is another man's treasure, and the by-product from one food can be perfect for making another,” might as well have been designed to describe dumpster diving.

The most common people who dumpster-dive are people without homes—unfortunately, out of necessity. They find clothes, food, and recyclable materials they can use themselves, return to stores for a deposit, or sell for a price. The homeless population is able to obtain materials they need to survive every day by dumpster-diving.

Many other people do this for varying reasons. Some dumpster-dive because they are able to identify quality out of used items that are no longer of value to their previous owners and turn a profit from them. Others prefer to do “curbside shopping” for sustainability instead of buying new items at the mall.

Despite dumpster diving being useful in waste reduction,  not all dumpsters are a free-for-all. So when does dumpster diving become an illegal act?

What to Keep in Mind When Dumpster Diving

Any trash left out on the curb or in public is deemed open to public use or scrutiny, so dumpster diving is generally legal. But laws regarding dumpster diving vary across cities and states. It’s always best to be informed of the relevant laws before poking around dumpsters. Get information from people living in your area. Such laws are also easily accessible online.

Say you’re properly informed of the laws concerning dumpsters. Now, it’s just as important to know the things you must keep in mind before, during, and after you dive into dumpsters. Don’t worry; we’ve simplified the list for you.

Dumpster Diving Can Be Physically Dangerous

You don’t exactly know what you’ll come across while rummaging through trash. Be sure to come ready with protective gear such as gloves. Using latex gloves under another pair of thicker gloves can protect your hands from items that can cause wounds, illnesses, and poison, among others. Please remember that no one else will be held liable for what happens to you.

You must also take the necessary precautions before setting foot inside a dumpster. The garbage disposal truck may come by anytime to pick up the dumpster unit you’re in, unaware that a person is inside. You can make a sign on cardboard and leave your car or belongings beside the dumpster unit to make them aware that you are there. If possible, notify or ask for permission from  people nearby before you begin scavenging for reusable items.

Keep the Peace

Sometimes, people may call you out or ask you to leave. If this happens, try communicating politely with them. If, for any reason, they are clearly bothered by what you are doing, you are better off looking for another dumpster to rummage in. As much as possible, avoid getting into trouble with people in the area because they might call the cops on you. When law enforcement arrives, they can charge you with disorderly conduct. It’s always better for you and everyone else around you to avoid the hassle and keep the peace.

Remember to return whatever you displace and clean up any mess you’ve created by rummaging through a dumpster to steer clear of getting fined for littering. This is your way of showing respect for the community so that they know you can be regarded as a professional next time around.

Be Aware of Private Property

Consider any place that has a gate, is fenced, or has “no trespassing” signs as an area needing authority to gain access. Avoid dumpster diving on private property, unless of course, you are given permission by the owner themselves.

You might be tempted to search through dumpsters behind stores or other commercial buildings. Be cautious. Remember that these dumpsters may still be considered private property and contain private information, so there is a chance you can be suspected of and get arrested for theft of personal belongings even if that is not your intention.

Homeowners are capable of renting dumpster units from companies that offer to pick up their excess waste. This service allows individuals more space in their homes for wastes from home projects, parties, etc. These rented dumpsters can still be classified as private property; ensure you check for any company labels, warning signs, or locks (even makeshift ones) on the units.

Beware of Construction Sites

You might consider construction sites as appealing to scavenge in because of all the scraps you can salvage. But there are laws today that encourage contractors to place their dumpsters within the property they are working on, making it private property. There might be an occasional dumpster near a construction site that can contain scrap materials. Again, check if the dumpster is directly linked to a private property or if it’s certainly open for public rummaging.

The trouble you’ll face if caught rummaging through construction scrap is inarguably not worth the profit you could make from it. First, you can be charged with trespassing. You will either be fined or sentenced to jail time. Second, if you accidentally tamper with materials you thought were scrap but were actually still being used for the construction, you can be charged with vandalism under the law. If you are slapped with  any of those charges and proven to be liable, you will get a criminal record. Lastly, you might also be injured in the process of going through scrap that you don’t really know is safe to handle by yourself. That alone is reason enough to beware of construction sites. Think about it: How can you continue dumpster diving in the future with an injury?

The Law

Now, we move on to the  major factor you must consider when dumpster diving: checking community, city, or state laws.

Fundamentally, dumpster diving is not illegal. The Supreme Court decreed in the 1980s that any trash that is left on the street or curb is technically public domain. Anyone can go through trash as long as it is not on private property, whether obvious or otherwise.

Nevertheless, scavenging through used items could lead to uncovering personal information that can be used against individuals owning or connected to it. If you make use of the personal information you came across while dumpster diving for your own benefit, you can be fined or sent to jail. Although the item bearing personal information that you found was indeed in a public area, it is still private information and very wrong to take advantage of.

Local citizens can question your motives, so be sure to clarify that you are only searching for reusable items to reduce waste and promote sustainability. If they are uncomfortable having a stranger rummage through their garbage within the community, they have every right to call for law enforcement back up. Despite the pressure, try to maintain calm, practice cleaning up after yourself, and peaceably comply with their requests. As mentioned earlier, you can be ticketed, fined, or jailed if you act otherwise.

When you are looking for food in grocery or store dumpsters and the store owner or manager prohibits you from dumpster diving, citing their belief that their food waste is no longer fit for human consumption (even if they are evidently still edible), you can bring up the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of the 1990s states that, “a person or gleaner must donate in good faith apparently wholesome food or apparently fit grocery products to a nonprofit organization for ultimate distribution to needy individuals.” Or else, you can simply state that you are gathering food for animals or pets. You can also say it’s to be used as fertilizer—anything but relating to human consumption. This may give you a pass since such stores are afraid of being held liable for whatever illness a person might acquire from their food waste/products.

It is best to take an inconspicuous mode of transportation to do your dumpster diving. Some communities have regulations against people in cars or other transportation means using dumpster diving as a cover to loot the neighborhood. So it’s safer to go dumpster diving on foot, taking along a basket, bag, or cart. You can also use a bicycle with a basket or container.

Another problem you may encounter in dumpster diving is with the owner of the dumpster or rental dumpsters. If you don’t have permission from the owner of the dumpster, you could be in big trouble. But if you have the owner’s prior consent, then you have nothing to worry about. However, if the dumpster used by that owner is a rental dumpster, you may encounter backlash from the rental company. Dumpster rental services may find that you scavenged through a dumpster they owned and took all the recyclable materials they were expecting to make profit from. (For that matter, this can also be the case with personally owned dumpsters.) It’s not immediately a legal matter; you can be harassed at first, but then later on face charges. Just be careful when choosing a dumpster and make sure you have necessary approval from all parties involved.


Why does dumpster diving deserve a deeper look? Because, “One man's trash is another man's treasure, and the by-product from one food can be perfect for making another.” On the other hand, one man’s trash (the by-product of overconsumption) can be a curse on the environment we live in and dumpster diving is a way to fight it.

People engage in dumpster diving for several reasons, often for survival or as a means to live sustainably and deal with waste that’s harmful to the environment and human beings. Federal and state laws state that dumpster diving is generally legal. However, it becomes illegal once you trespass on a private property and steal private belongings and personal information from privately-owned dumpsters. Dumpster diving is incriminating if you are proven guilty of acquiring information through dumpster diving and utilizing it to hack or take advantage of the owner of the information in any way.

Anything taken from inside private properties or private dumpsters is considered stolen. You can then be arrested for stealing. Although some homeowners won’t mind the activity because they are getting rid of items to make more space in their homes anyway, be sure to check if the area the dumpster, garbage bag, or whatever item is in is actually within private property before digging in.

Be informed of all the laws governing dumpster diving; they are easy to access online nowadays. County, city, and commercial laws vary, so do your due diligence. Ask around or do online research before diving in. No pun intended.

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