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

Dumpster diving is often aimed at stealing the person’s identity (i.e., identity theft). Many different types of fraud and scams are accomplished through dumpster diving. Once the culprit gets a hold of the 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 and social security information
  • 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 people 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 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.

However, if the dumpster or garbage bin is still in an enclosed area or is 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 slightly by jurisdiction.

Lastly, while the act of dumpster diving may not itself be illegal, using a person’s confidential information for criminal purposes is illegal. It can result in criminal consequences like a fine or jail time and civil damages for losses.

Should I Check My Local Laws for Garbage Ordinances?

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

Research your state laws online to find helpful links to state and county websites. From there, you can search for waste or garbage ordinances. The more you know about these laws, the safer you will be. Think of dumpster diving laws this way:

  • Federal law: Legal
  • State law: Legal
  • County law: It depends – do your research
  • City law: it depends – do your research
  • Restaurant or business-specific laws: it depends – do your research
  • Private property: Illegal
  • Warning signs or locks on the dumpster: 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 dumpster diving laws of the state, 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.
  • Food. Food is rarely thrown away in many developing countries unless it is rotten. Food is scarce in developing countries compared to developed nations, like the United States. In the United States, 40 to 50 percent of food is wasted. Trash cans contain lots of food to gather. 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 nonprofit 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 for which 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.
  • 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 home construction purposes.
  • Empty cans and bottles. In many countries, a system exists in which empty cans and bottles can be returned to stores for money, although the amount received per can/bottle is usually relatively low.

Is Dumpster Diving Trespassing?

If you jump a fence, walk through an open gate, or walk onto private property in any way, you 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 building. Dumpster diving on private property may get you a ticket, or you could be arrested.

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 you, ticket you, or arrest you for inappropriate conduct in public.

Law enforcement may also fine you for illegal dumping or littering as you 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 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 your name and address on any mail or periodicals.
  • Don’t place your trash out earlier than is necessary, and retrieve your bin as soon as possible.
  • 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 close to its expiration date to any non-profit organization.

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

Dumpster diving can lead to some very serious legal situations. You may wish to hire a criminal lawyer if you are experiencing identity theft or feel that dumpster diving may have affected you. Your attorney can help represent you in court and advise you on how you might recover any losses or damages due to the violations.

Consider browning through LegalMatch’s excellent database of criminal lawyers. Our criminal lawyer database is broad and comprehensive. To begin the process of hiring an excellent, experienced criminal law attorney in your area, click the link here. LegalMatch’s services will help you narrow down your search for a lawyer by allowing you to choose the issues involved in your case. There is no fee to present your case. The lawyers presented will be from your area, and our service is always 100% confidential.