If you find treasure where others see trash, take a few minutes consider trash picking laws. Are you breaking the law when scavenging, dumpster diving, curb surfing, free-cycling, or trash picking? Maybe. It depends on where you are picking, what you are taking, and your methods.
You are breaking no federal laws by trash picking garbage that was left in a public space. However, you may be breaking local laws that exist in a some areas. Furthermore, some locales prevent the taking of certain types of garbage (like recyclables).
When you are trash picking, it is much more likely that you will get in trouble for breaking other laws, like laws about trespassing, littering, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, health and safety, or parking.
It is always good to know where you stand legally, so here is an explanation of trash picking laws.
Related post: Free Stuff on the Curb: 29 tips for scoring big
Trash picking and the law
Trash picking is legal (federally)
If you are a trash picker or dumpster diver, you will be pleased to learn that the Supreme Court has defended your right to go through and even take other people’s trash (sort of.)
While there have been no cases about trash picking directly, there have been cases on the legal standing of garbage. The most important case in this regard has been California v. Greenwood. In this 1988 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the police had the right to pick through and take from trash left on public space.
In the 1984 the Laguna Beach police department picked through Billy Greenwood’s garbage to find evidence of drug trafficking which they consequently used to gain a search warrant. After searching the home, the police found lots of marijuana and cocaine. Greenwood’s defense argued all the way to the Supreme Court that searching his garbage violated the fourth amendment as illegal search and seizure.
The court decided that that garbage left for collection is in the public realm and loses all rights of privacy and property.
Criminals take note, this view has been upheld in subsequent cases. Your garbage may not remain silent and may be used against you.
Local trash picking laws
While the Greenwood case tangentially protects trash picking on a federal level, some areas have local prohibitions on trash picking. You might think that everyone wins when something useful stays out of the landfill or recycling center, but policy makers may not share that view.
Recyclable materials may be off limits
For some municipalities, recycling means big money. When scrappers, can collectors, or passers by take the intended recycling, the city or its contracted service loses money. Even though the value of recyclable materials has fallen in recent years, these materials may be jealously guarded.
Some municipalities have ordinances that make intended recycling the property of the city. In one extreme 2010 case, a New York City man and his aunt were each fined $2000 for taking a discarded air conditioner from the curb.
It is unlikely that law enforcement will take the time to pursue people taking recycling. Nevertheless, if you want to obey the law, check your local laws or just skip taking recyclables all together.
Undesirable behaviors and identity thieves
Some locales have laws to prevent trash picking in any form. Even if the item is not recycling or protected by privacy or property laws, trash picking may be off limits. The laws are mainly in place to prevent nuisance behaviors and identity theft.
These laws can be controversial. Nobody wants someone “salvaging” their personal documents. Furthermore, nobody wants a bunch of noise in the middle of the night, strangers hanging out on the sidewalk, or a mess to clean up. On the other hand, it seems sinful to prevent the salvaging of serviceable items that are destined for the landfill.
Whether or not you personally feel that these trash picking laws go too far, they are on the books in many places.
Related laws that you might be breaking
Even if trash picking is technically fair game where you are, there are many other laws to consider. People who get in trouble for trash picking are usually fined for one of the following issues.
Garbage on or in private property remains the private property of the resident or entity. Even if you are a 90-year-old grandma grabbing cans from the garbage at the car wash, that garbage is protected by privacy and property laws.
As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, garbage in the public realm is fair game, but how do you know if the items are in the public realm? If the garbage is by the side of the house, in a garage, behind a fence, or in a locked container, it is clear that you will be trespassing. But what about when garbage placement gets vague?
Public or private space?
We can talk about tree lawns, road verge, alleys, easements, and curbs, but the key legal term to understand here is curtilage:
“Curtilage includes the area immediately surrounding a dwelling, and it counts as part of the home for many legal purposes, including searches and many self-defense laws. When considering whether something is in a dwelling’s curtilage, courts consider four factors:
- The proximity of the thing to the dwelling;
- Whether the thing is within an enclosure surrounding the home;
- What the thing is used for.
- What steps, if any, the resident took to protect the thing from observation/ access by people passing by.”
Our physical spaces are complex and varied, and different cities have different rules regarding spaces like sidewalks. When it comes to curtilage (the protected private space), both the physical space and the intentions of the owner are factors.
To avoid trespassing, simply ask yourself two questions:
- Do I have a clear, legal right to walk there generally?
- Are the items clearly being left for disposal?
Invasion of privacy
I have already noted that some municipalities have laws preventing all forms of garbage picking over privacy concerns. Even if such laws are not in place, a resident or entity retains privacy rights for any garbage within the curtilage of the property.
Privacy rights and property rights go hand-in-hand when it comes to trash picking laws. If the previous owner has placed the items in public space (beyond their legal curtilage) for intended disposal, they have no legal expectation of privacy.
People may not want you to know that they still read Boy’s Life magazine, eat six cans of spam a week, or never dust their dresser drawers, but privacy rights do not extend to garbage on the curb.
I may not like it when someone takes my picture in public, but their is nothing that I can do about it. Similarly, I may not like it when someone looks at my old furniture on curb, but I have waved my privacy rights and any expectation of privacy.
Health and Safety violations
In rare cases, trash pickers have been fined for health and safety violations.
In Birmingham, Alabama, several men were fined after collecting trash for disposal when the neighborhood trash was piling up (due to unpaid sanitation bills.) The officials argued that the men did not have the required training or equipment for the disposal. Even though the trash had been sitting around for weeks, the officials claimed that the men were creating a health hazard.
This unusual case aside, if you are salvaging items, make sure that you are not inadvertently creating physical or biological hazards. If you are leaving dangerous debris or potentially spreading pathogens, a fine is justified.
Some people think that you must take possession of an offending item before you can be guilty of littering. Based on most littering laws, this is simply not the case.
One example (California)
“374. (a) Littering means the willful or negligent throwing, dropping, placing, depositing, or sweeping, or causing any such acts, of any waste matter on land or water in other than appropriate storage containers or areas designated for such purposes.”
Ownership or possession has nothing to do with it. If I pick up a piece of garbage in the park to read the label and then put it back where I found it, I am still littering. If you are physically leaving, placing, or scattering garbage when seeking trashy treasures, you are littering.
Let’s say I break apart an old desk to salvage the drawers for another purpose. If I do not properly dispose of the remaining debris, I am littering.
Disorderly conduct / disturbing the peace
There are many reasons not to pick trash in the dead of night. One reason is that you might be breaking laws regarding disorderly conduct and/or disturbing the peace. In one extreme case, an actual garbage collector was sentenced to jail time for doing his job too early in the morning.
Disturbing the peace is a legal catch-all that is defined as “infringing upon or frustrating someone else’s right to peace and tranquility.” As you can tell, this is a very vague definition. (My neighbor’s Dallas Cowboys flag frustrates my tranquility on a daily basis.) Laws regarding disturbing the peace and the degree their enforcement vary widely from place to place.
The most important thing to remember is to be considerate. Make minimal noise, do not stay long, and do not leave a mess.
Loitering laws are controversial because they generally target the less fortunate. A poor person and a rich person can do the exact same thing with very different reactions from shop owners, police, etc. If you are picking trash, you will not get the benefit of preference.
Some loitering laws focus on the absence of activity (hanging around) whereas other laws focus on undesirable activities. (“But officer, I do have a purpose. I am begging for money and then gambling with it.”) Most accusations of loitering are baseless as the offense is hard to prove.
Even though you may be within your rights to be where you are, why invite a hassle? The easiest way to avoid any concerns about loitering is by going about your business expeditiously.
Related link: A Guide to Legal Loitering
Illegal parking / loading
No matter how great the prospective find, do not commit moving or parking violations. The money you were trying to save will disappear in a flurry of carbon paper and bureaucracy. Take your time, park legally, and load responsibly.
Conclusions on trash picking laws
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is my understanding based on my experience and research. You are responsible for checking your local laws.
The take-away here is that much of the time scavenging, dumpster diving, curb surfing, free-cycling, and trash picking is perfectly legal. You must make sure that there are no local laws prohibiting your activity and that items that you are taking are in the public realm and intended for disposal.
On the other hand, you must keep other laws pertaining to trespassing, littering, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, health and safety, parking, etc. in the front of your mind. It is easy to imagine law enforcement officials using these other laws as a way to curb a legal behavior (trash picking) that has been causing complaints in the area.
For my part, I love finding cool, free stuff, and I feel that it is important to battle our society’s wasteful tendencies whenever possible. However, I do not want to break any laws nor upset anyone in my community. The solution is for me to get my free stuff while obeying trash picking laws and acting conscientiously.
I decided to do a deep dive on this trashy subject after writing a post on curb surfing. If you would like to get my tips, please check out my other post:
Did my post on trash picking laws help you out? Did I miss the mark? Do you want to share your experience? Please, leave a comment.
Featured image by Elvert Barnes