Monday, October 21, 2013

Is Dumpster Diving Illegal?

It is true that many perfectly good things get thrown away in today’s society - clothes, furniture, decorations, food, useful supplies - too much of it get tossed by businesses and people who have no need for it any more and often no idea of where it might be recycled, re-purposed, or reused.  

In 2008, during the mortgage meltdown crisis in America, the stock market tanked and many people who considered themselves safe and prosperous lost their jobs and most of their assets in the aftermath.  It has been a long and painful road from there for many families - all of which has lead to creative acquisition of goods and services, often through begging, borrowing, or stealing.  Dumpster diving falls in a gray area of the last category, although more and more people are doing it these days, including new groups that style themselves as freegans.

According to, freegans are “people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.”  Freegans, in this sense, are vegans (although not all of them) who eat for free from what they find discarded by grocery stores or other sources.  People who scavenge trash but do not eat from it, are known as dumpster divers.  

From a legal perspective, trash thrown out on the curb is fair game for anyone, and it cannot be considered theft to rummage through it and take what you want.  Dumpster diving on private property is a little more complicated, partly because of the trespassing aspect.  Additionally, if the dumpster abuts a building, is behind a fence, or has a sign such as “Private: No Trespassing,” that’s when dumpster divers enter a gray legal area and can be questioned, ticketed or even arrested by the police.  Often stores and home owners will object to dumpster diving on their property because they are concerned about liability.  If someone were to be injured, they could be sued, a most undesirable outcome.  

However, besides the legal risks of dumpster diving, there are also physical ones.  Dumpsters are, by definition, filled with trash, and that trash can be medical waste (and therefore seriously hazardous), decomposing food (with potentially toxic bacteria), or broken things with sharp edges, be they metal, glass, or wood.  Any of those can give you a nasty injury while at the same time infecting it.  Getting in and out of dumpsters can be tricky and dangerous.  You could easily end up straining or breaking something in that attempt to bag some discarded bread or old umbrella stand.  Finally, some people can also be territorial about dumpsters they have “claimed,” and may object to others horning in on “their” dumpsters.  This may be especially true in urban environments where demand is higher and resources scarcer.

For all of the above reasons, rummage through dumpsters at your own risk.

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