The Legality of Digging Through Trash

Photo courtesy: Google images

By Anthony Chan

Taking out the trash is an everyday task that most people never even think about. On trash day, trash cans are placed on the curb for trash collection, but sometimes collection isn’t done by Waste Management or the local trash collection agency. Sometimes people go “dumpster diving,” scavenging in waste bins for recyclables and edible food.

The controversy over digging through resident’s trash comes from concerns about privacy, legality, and the threat of identity theft. State law prohibits anyone from taking trash from trash cans, as only the owners of the trash and authorized refuse collectors are authorized to take it.

Laws governing the ownership of trash are generally not enforced, because the harm caused by dumpster diving is comparatively miniscule in relation to the harm caused by other crimes. Why should cops stop dumpster divers from taking trash when there are violent criminals that need to be apprehended?

Some residents are upset about the lack of enforcement for dumpster diving misdemeanors, because they believe that searching through other people’s property – abandoned or not – is an invasion of privacy. Furthermore, allowing dumpster divers to freely go through neighborhood trash exposes people to identity theft.

Although state and local laws prohibit dumpster diving, waste bins and the refuse left for collection is not given the same 4th amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizure. In California vs. Greenwood, the Supreme Court ruled that, “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of 4th Amendment protection,” and that nothing compels the extension of Constitutional protection to trash cans placed adjacent to or on a public thoroughfare.

People who sympathize with dumpster divers say that they are poor people who are struggling to feed their families and that dumpster diving does nothing to harm anyone. Because no one is harmed in reclaiming would-be trash, there is no reason to prevent dumpster diving.

The trash that ends up in waste bins set out on the curb every week are legally property of the contracted waste collection agencies, because reclaimed recyclables are used to offset collection costs for local governments. Dumpster diving may seem harmless on first look, but it harms the companies who collect, sort, and dispose of trash.

As of now, dumpster divers can rejoice in collecting free recyclables and discarded but perfectly edible food. Law enforcement has better things to do.