Some people dumpster dive because they are hungry and poor. Others do it because they’re seeking items that can be repaired into usefulness. Still others are environmentalists who want to reduce the flow of waste going into landfills.

But is it legal?

Fortunately for most dumpster divers, the answer is usually yes. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that trash is trash. Once you throw something out, the justices ruled, it enters the public domain and is fair game for dumpster divers.

Examples of Illegal Dumpster Diving

While that is usually true, however, it is not always the case. Here are some examples of instances where a dumpster diver might land in legal hot water:

  • When diving into a dumpster that is clearly on private property – for example, behind a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign or if the dumpster itself has some kind of anti-trespassing language on it. That dumpster is probably not in the public domain, and you could be charged with trespassing.
  • When attempting to break through a fence or a chain to get to the dumpster. The diver could be nailed for destruction of property, trespassing, or even theft.
  • When diving in a dumpster where the activity is forbidden by ordinance. Some municipalities ban all dumpster diving, usually for reasons of preventing residents’ identity theft.
  • When a diver leaves a mess. That’s called littering and the diver could get nailed for it.

Legal Gray Areas

Nevertheless, the law around dumpster diving contains plenty of gray areas. For instance, determining whether a dumpster is on private property is not always an easy call – what about dumpsters that are behind businesses but not behind a fence? And even if rummaging through the dumpster is legal, the neighbors or the police may not think kindly of the activity. They could charge the diver with being a public nuisance.

Meanwhile, if you think dumpster diving sounds appealing and you’d like to give it a try, you should also be aware of the activity’s risks. Dumpster divers can become sick from bacteria or pesticides or injured from sharp objects.

There’s a reason, after all, why people throw things out.