Is Dumpster Diving Illegal?

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 What Is Dumpster Diving?

Dumpster diving is the activity of foraging through another person’s garbage or going through someone’s trash in order to obtain discarded materials.

Dumpster diving is often aimed at stealing the identity of the person whose trash is foraged, i.e., committing identity theft. Many different types of fraud and scams are accomplished through dumpster diving. Once the perpetrator obtains a victim’s personal information, they can sometimes gain access to even more personal data.

A wide range of personal information can be obtained from discarded materials, including:

  • Driver’s license information;
  • Social Security numbers;
  • Date of birth;
  • Handwritten signatures;
  • Medical information;
  • Bank statements, credit card, and bank account numbers.

Is Dumpster Diving Illegal?

It is generally considered legal for a person to rummage through the trash that has been left in a public area, such as a curb, for pickup. Once the garbage is placed in such a place, the person whose garbage it is has basically forfeited their ownership rights to the items, as the property is now in the public domain.

Note that when a person discards trash, they have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the discarded items, which means that the police can search through the trash without first obtaining a warrant. If a person does not want their trash to be searched by the police or others, they should dispose of it in ways other than putting it out in a public place for collection.

However, if a dumpster or trash bin is still in an enclosed area or on private property, a person could be cited for trespass or even for theft if they try to rummage through the garbage. Also, some cities or counties may designate certain garbage processing areas as off-limits to the public. These distinctions may vary by locality.

Lastly, while the act of dumpster diving may not itself be illegal, using a person’s confidential information for criminal purposes is illegal. It is a criminal offense. If a person is convicted of identity theft, they can be sentenced to payment of a fine and/or a term of imprisonment in jail. They may also have to pay civil damages to compensate the victim for their losses.

Should I Check My Local Laws for Garbage Ordinances?

Dumpster diving is technically legal in all 50 states as long as it does not conflict with any city or county ordinance or state laws. When a trash bag is sitting on the curb waiting to be picked up by a waste removal company, it enters the public domain. Most garbage can be searched or taken by the police, a neighbor, waste removal employees, or a stranger.

A person may want to research the laws of their state to find helpful links to state and county websites. From there, a person can search for dumpster diving laws by state as well as ordinances or codes by county. The more a person knows about these laws, the safer they will be. Generally, the law regarding dumpster diving is as follows:

  • Federal law: Legal;
  • State law: Legal;
  • County and City law: It depends; a person would want to research their county codes;
  • Restaurant or business-specific laws: These locations may be on private property, so a person would want to be cautious;
  • Private property: Illegal;
  • Warning signs or locks on the dumpster: Illegal.

It is important to remember that dumpsters located in shopping malls may well be on private property, and dumpster diving in these locations may be illegal.

Why Do People Dumpster Dive?

People may choose to dumpster dive for various reasons. These reasons may include:

  • Making extra money. Sometimes, regardless of the state’s dumpster diving laws, people start dumpster diving to earn extra money from waste bins and trash. Some people earn extra cash by searching through dumpsters for valuable items they can sell;
  • Food. Food is rarely thrown away in many developing countries unless it is rotten. Food is scarce in developing countries compared to developed nations, such as the U.S. In the U.S., 40 to 50 percent of food is wasted. Trash cans contain lots of discarded food that may not be spoiled.
    • In many countries, charities collect excess food from supermarkets and restaurants to redistribute into impoverished neighborhoods;
  • Electronic waste. Consumer electronics are consistently dumped into trash bins due to their rapid depreciation, the cost to repair, or the expense to upgrade. Owners of computers may find it easier to throw them away than donate them because many non-profit organizations and schools are unable or unwilling to accept used equipment.
    • In some cases, vendors dispose of unsold, non-defective merchandise into landfills;
  • Clothing. Thrift stores routinely refuse used goods that they cannot cheaply and easily resell. Items that thrift stores accept often cost them nothing. For this reason, there is no cost associated with discarding expendable clothing, appliances, or donated items that are overstocked or find no buyer after a length of time. These items end up in dumpsters;
  • Metal. Some waste bins contain recyclable metals or other materials that can be sold to recycling plants. Scrap yards also buy commonly recycled metals like steel and aluminum;
  • Wood. Wood is commonly salvaged for home heating or construction purposes;
  • Empty cans and bottles. In some states and cities in the U.S., a system exists in which empty cans and bottles can be returned to stores or recycling centers for money, although the amount received per can/bottle is usually relatively low.

Is Dumpster Diving Trespassing?

If a person jumps a fence, walks through an open gate, or walks onto private property in any way, they may be trespassing. Many stores have back areas that are still considered private store property. Stores that have their trash on a public city street may be an exception to this rule.

Dumpster diving on private property is illegal without permission from the owner of the property. A person may get a citation or even be arrested for dumpster diving on private property.

One thing a person interested in dumpster diving can do is look for signs that warn that the property is private and the public is not invited to enter. Places with signs such as these should be off-limits.

Is Dumpster Diving Disorderly Conduct?

Dumpster diving may be considered disorderly conduct if it is performed in a public area and complaints are filed or if someone calls the police. Law enforcement may warn a person, ticket them, or arrest them for inappropriate conduct in public.

Law enforcement may also fine a person for illegal dumping or littering as they sort through trash or leave items lying around. It is best to be polite and cooperate with law enforcement if asked to leave an area.

Do Dumpster Diving Rules Apply to Recycling Bins?

People in some states may choose to dumpster dive to collect recyclable items that they can turn in for cash. Dumpster diving out of recycling bins may be considered stealing and may result in a ticket, fine, or arrest.

How Can I Protect Myself Against Dumpster Diving Crimes?

Identity theft, criminal theft, and other dumpster diving-related crimes can be prevented by taking steps such as:

  • Be sure to shred or destroy any information that is private and confidential. This includes items that show a person’s name and address on any mail or periodicals.
  • A person should not place their trash out earlier than is necessary and retrieve their bins as soon as possible;
  • A person should report any instances of suspicious behavior in the neighborhood.

Are There Resources for Business Owners?

Restaurant and food store managers can donate unsold food instead of throwing it in a trash can. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects donors from liability when they donate food to a non-profit organization close to its expiration date.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Dumpster Diving Crimes?

If you have been charged with a crime as a result of your dumpster diving, you want to consult a criminal defense lawyer. Your attorney can negotiate with the prosecution and get the best possible resolution of your case. can connect you to an experienced lawyer in your area who can represent you. There is no fee to present your case. The lawyers presented to you will be from your area, and our service is always 100% confidential.


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