By FindLaw Staff | Legally reviewed by Gregg Cavanagh | Last reviewed November 21, 2022
This article has been written and reviewed for legal accuracy, clarity, and style by FindLaw’s team of legal writers and attorneys and in accordance with our editorial standards.
The last updated date refers to the last time this article was reviewed by FindLaw or one of our contributing authors. We make every effort to keep our articles updated. For information regarding a specific legal issue affecting you, please contact an attorney in your area.
Dumpster diving can be tempting. After all, no one's getting hurt - right? You get freebies from a store, and the store never knows their trash has been taken and re-used. Many retail stores get rid of materials like promo posters, marketing resources, magazines, displays, cardboard boxes, new products that did not sell, and more. One person's trash can be another person's treasure.
However, there are nuances you need to understand before going through anyone's trash. Use the checklist below to make sure you stay legal and avoid run-ins with law enforcement.
Check Local Laws for “Garbage Ordinances"
Dumpster diving is technically legal in all 50 states. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in State of California v. Greenwood that searching trash is legal as long as it does not conflict with any city, county, or state ordinances.
Consider the following example of such an acceptable form of dumpster diving. Let's say that someone is looking through the trash bag that you left on the curb outside your house, where you typically leave trash for pick up by waste management personnel. Given that the curb outside your house is a public space, you can no longer reasonably expect someone to observe the privacy of that place where you left your trash. In other words, it becomes “public domain," and the Fourth Amendment no longer applies. Under the Fourth Amendment, intrusions into private spaces tend to become a problem.
This means most garbage can be searched or taken by the police, a neighbor, waste removal employees, or a stranger.
To learn the specifics in your city, you can research your state laws online and find helpful links to state and county websites. From there, the ordinances are often searchable or listed under waste or garbage sections. The more granular you can get with these laws, the safer you will be. Think of dumpster diving laws as a funnel and check with each level:
- Federal law: Legal
- State law: Legal
- County law: It depends, and you must research this
- City law: It depends, and you must research this
- A restaurant or business's specific rules: It depends, and you must research this
- Private property: Illegal
- Warning signs or locks on the dumpster: Illegal
If you jump a fence, walk through a gate, or in any way walk onto private property to dumpster dive, then you may be trespassing. Many stores have back areas that are still considered private property. The exception would be any stores that have their trash on a public city street.
Private property would make any dumpster diving illegal without the permission of the owner of the company or building, and you could get a ticket or be arrested.
Signs and Locks on Dumpsters
Proper signage can be used to warn dumpster divers and may be used in a court case to show the business took appropriate precautions. Some signs or regulations can make everything inside that dumpster off-limits.
Tampering with a lock on a dumpster is also illegal and can end in fines or an arrest. Pay attention to the warning signs that a business may prosecute anyone who tampers with their trash.
Dumpster diving can be seen as a fun hobby or an environmentally-friendly habit. It can also be seen as disorderly conduct in a public area if there are complaints filed about it or someone calls the police. Law enforcement can warn, ticket, or arrest you for anything they deem inappropriate conduct in public.
They could also fine you for illegal dumping or littering as you sort through trash or have items laying around. Be polite, cooperate if you are asked to leave, and do not create a mess if you are hoping to dumpster dive undisturbed.
Are You Using a Car to Dumpster Dive?
Using a vehicle nearby or parking right next to the dumpster while you sort through trash may worry business owners or neighbors. It can look like stealing if you load up a car full of food, electronics, new-looking items, or recyclable items (see below). Well-meaning bystanders may call the police to report a theft if they see this.
Stay Out of Recycling Bins/Recyclable Items
People in some states may dumpster dive to collect recyclable items that they turn in for money. This can be seen as stealing and may result in someone spotting you and calling the police.
Hold Yourself Accountable
A business owner may not mind you turning in recycling or being resourceful with their useful trash items. But they may worry about their liability for what you find and sell, or how you go about getting in and out of that dumpster. If you are hurt while climbing in or out, a food item makes you sick, or a product you find malfunctions and harms you, you have two options:
- Talk to a personal injury attorney about the injury and property where you were hurt. These cases can be grey areas since you chose to be in someone else's trash and took personal risks. However, you always have the right to bring a lawsuit if you have been harmed.
- Accept that you took a personal risk. Be safe and courteous if you want to continue your dumpster diving in the community after an injury.
In either scenario, a business owner could still press charges against you for dumpster diving if they catch you. It is important to weigh the risks and benefits of each dumpster diving situation. To be safe, you can always call your local government, the police, and businesses near you to ask permission or explain why you want to sort through their dumpster.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Contact a qualified personal injury attorney to make sure your rights are protected.