Is Dumpster Diving Illegal?

dumpster diving2Perhaps you’ve heard about the newest fad: dumpster diving. Those who partake in dumpster diving search through items discarded in a dumpster for food or other things such as furniture or clothing that they might find useful. This practice is becoming increasingly popular not just as a way of life for the less affluent, but as a serious hobby for the thrifty and environmentally conscious. In fact, dumpster divers, sometimes known as freegans, across America are beginning to connect over the internet and form groups. However, the legality of this practice is constantly being questioned. Many want to know — is dumpster diving illegal? While laws tend to vary in different areas, here is a general overview to abide by. Still, you should check the specific laws in your town before diving yourself.

In the United States, dumpster diving or garbage picking is legal. Generally, law states that when an item is thrown into garbage bins placed outside, that item becomes public domain. However, dumpster divers may run into issues when the dumpster is located on private property or near a fence marked “No Trespassing.” In these cases, police may have reason to ticket or even arrest the diver. If you plan on dumpster diving, check the area for any signage that would suggest the garbage is not part of public domain.

Dumpster divers commonly run into other legal issues such as littering or disorderly conduct. Typically, police will not respond to dumpster diving unless called by a store manager or resident. Freegans who do not cause a commotion or leave a mess behind are less likely to have a negative interaction with authorities.

In some cities, garbage picking using a vehicle is considered illegal because certain recyclables could be exchanged for cash. For the same reason, some communities consider taking from recycling bins to be thievery. Other times, the person responsible for the dumpster may try taking legal action to avoid being sued if someone injures themselves while dumpster diving or gets sick from food they’ve tossed away. 

At the end of the day, is dumpster diving illegal? While the general answer is no, U.S. towns and cities do have the ability to outlaw dumpster diving in that municipality. Research the topic in your area to see if you live in one of these towns. Dumpster owners or renters who wish to keep others out of their garbage are able to place their dumpster on private property and hang the appropriate signage to warn potential divers. If you have specific questions about renting a dumpster, visit our frequently asked questions page.

It might be useful for restaurant or food store managers to note that they are able to donate unsold food instead of throwing it away. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects donors from liability when donating food near its expiration date to a non-profit organization. Click here to read about a free cafe supplied with dumpster diving finds.