Are you wondering if it is legal to dumpster dive? Even though it may seem like an unenviable or desperate task to root through a bin full of trash and waste, plenty of perfectly good products and food items get thrown into dumpster bins every day by small businesses and individuals. But is it legal to dumpster dive? Or is it considered theft even if someone or some business has disposed of merchandise or food that has gone past its expiry date?
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As the old saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and although the thought of diving into a dumpster might seem off-putting, there’s money to be made in the dirty business of rummaging through garbage bins. News stories from around the world over the years detail how people make thousands of dollars a month as dumpster divers who discover saleable merchandise disposed of by major retailers and other businesses.
Online communities of dumpster divers have also highlighted how much and how many useful and usable things get disposed of every day at construction sites, flea markets, grocery stores, clothing retailers, and big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy. Dumpster diving, or “binning” as it is sometimes called, has been historically associated with the homeless and destitute who come to rely on food and other items thrown out each day by restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores.
But that historical association with homelessness has been somewhat supplanted in our day and age, as social consciousness of just how much we waste every single day grows. The act of dumpster diving for food and other goods is a hallmark of so-called “freegans,” who take their anti-capitalist and anti-consumerism ideology to an extreme that most people may not be comfortable with since it involves digging through waste and garbage. As the cost of living rises in urban areas, though, extreme frugality and ideological and moral opposition to wasting food especially make questions about the legality of dumpster diving more poignant than ever.
Is dumpster diving illegal?
You can only go through recycling bins in the public domain. Dumpster diving laws can be complex, but as long as you are not stealing people’s identities (identity theft) or looking for ordinances, then you should be okay.
Identity theft can lead to the police department charging you with a misdemeanor and also possibly prosecution under trespassing laws.
To go dumpster diving with friends can also be dangerous. There could be needles. You can also expect the municipality bylaw officers to come by and ask you to stop. If you don’t, they might hit you with citations under state laws or provincial laws.
Be ready with the results of a Supreme Court ruling or a local court case that proves that what you are doing is not wrong. Discarded items are fair game. You have the right to look for items in garbage cans and the landfill.
Dumpster diving and the law in North America
In both Canada and the United States, the country’s Supreme Courts have had to weigh in on the legality of dumpster diving in the context of criminal investigations. The investigative tactics of police faced legal challenges over their collection of garbage from criminal suspects. Both countries’ precedent-setting cases involved suspected drug traffickers who were caught after police collected evidence from trash bags the suspects had left out for collection.
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The question for the courts was whether police searches of trash bags were constitutional and whether criminal suspects have legal privacy rights violated when police search and seize things thrown away by the people they’re investigating.
It was in 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case known as California v. Greenwood, where the court held that warrantless searches and seizures of someone’s garbage didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a 6-2 decision, since one of the justices at the time didn’t participate in the case, the majority of the court found that there were no legitimate privacy interests in garbage left on a public street for collection.
Disorderly conduct and the expectation of privacy
The ruling details how a police officer, acting on a tip that Greenwood was a drug dealer, had taken garbage bags from the curbside in front of the man’s house. Finding evidence of drug use in the bags, the police used that evidence as probable cause to get warrants to search Greenwood’s home and eventually bring him up on felony drug charges. But a state court dismissed them, finding the “warrantless trash searches” violated both the Fourth Amendment and the state’s Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s majority, however, disagreed. The court ruled that since Greenwood had voluntarily left his garbage for collection in public, his privacy claims were “not objectively reasonable.” Plastic trash bags on a public street, the court’s ruling states, “are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.” Therefore, the court found, it would be unreasonable for law enforcement to be expected to “avert their eyes from evidence of criminal activity that could have been observed by any member of the public.”
The two dissenting justices, Brennan and Marshall, wrote that Greenwood had left his trash in “opaque, sealed bags” that police used to dredge up “intimate details of Greenwood’s private life and habits.” The pair of dissenters wrote that going through peoples’ garbage is “contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behaviour.” They claimed that society would be “shocked” that the Supreme Court, “the ultimate guarantor of liberty, deems unreasonable our expectation that the aspects of our private lives that are concealed safely in a trash bag will not become public.”
Supreme Court decisions
It was two decades later when the Supreme Court of Canada had a remarkably similar case come on the docket from a drug prosecution originally in Alberta. In 2009, in the case, R. v. Patrick, the Supreme Court of Canada found that police didn’t violate Patrick’s rights against unreasonable search and seizure when they took his garbage bags from an alley behind his property.
Like in the Greenwood case in the United States, police had suspected Patrick of drug activity, namely running a lab to make ecstasy out of his home. They collected his garbage bags, using the evidence to get a search warrant and later charge him with drug offences. Patrick claimed that the seizure of his garbage violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court convicted him, and the Alberta Court of Appeals upheld the convictions.
The Supreme Court of Canada found that putting out the garbage for public collection negates any “reasonable expectation … of keeping the contents confidential.”
Legal to dumpster dive conclusion
We hope you found this article on if dumpster diving is illegal helpful. Below are some other things you should think about:
- Make sure you are not littering after taking things out of trash cans
- Watch out for no trespassing signs
- Don’t go ordinances diving- there are different laws
- Watch out for expectations of privacy laws- don’t collect personal information
- Do not engage in disorderly conduct
- Research local laws which will be different in each place
What’s the saying? Discarded local ordinances are a man’s treasure? Just kidding.
While the court rulings from both countries’ Supreme Courts were more about police investigative tactics, they paved the way for legal dumpster diving by members of the public. As long as the garbage has been “abandoned” and doesn’t require the breaking of a lock or trespassing on private property, dumpster diving is perfectly legal, despite the stigma and stench attached to the practice.
In conclusion, have fun and be safe when going through trash bins at Walmart or supermarkets. Rummage safely and be aware of specific laws in your area. We hope you found this article on if it’s legal to dumpster dive fun.