If something is on the curb, is it free?

Yes! Something on the curb is (probably) free for you to take. However, there are some important considerations.

Something on the curb is free as long as long as…

  1. It is intended for disposal.
  2. There are no local prohibitions on the taking of trash or recycling.
  3. It is in public space (where anyone is free to walk).

What makes something on the curb free to take?

1) The item is intended for disposal.

The motorcycle is not intended for disposal.

If the trash is intended for disposal, the owner has relinquished property rights and an expectation of privacy.  But how can you know what is intended?

Knowing the intent can be tough, and it requires some judgment of the context.  If the item is on the curb, it is trash day, it is included with other trash, it looks dirty or broken, etc. you can be pretty sure that it is intended for disposal.

If you are unsure about an item on the curb, it is best to leave it alone. You do not want to inadvertently steal from someone.  I am reminded of a neighbor who left his lawnmower on the curb for a couple of minutes next to his trash. When he returned, his lawnmower was gone.  Technically, the taker committed theft (as it was not meant for disposal).  If you are unsure about the owner’s intent, you could inquire about it.

The simple fact that something is on the curb does make it up for grabs.  Do not go around stealing baby strollers left outside the library or intercepting people’s new appliances during delivery.

2) There are no regulations prohibiting you from taking it.

Federal law does not prohibit the taking of people’s trash.  However, there may be state laws or local ordinances preventing the taking of recycling or trash by people unauthorized to do so. You may object to the laws, but the agencies offer several justifications. 

Related post: Trash Picking Laws

The locality is protecting privacy and preventing fraud.

Some trash-pickers are not looking for new end-table; they are looking for an identity to steal.  Even though everyone should know not to put intact personal documents in the trash, some states and municipalities have taken additional steps.

Washington State, for example, has increased laws on privacy, which extend to items in the garbage.

The materials are now the property of another agency.

Recycling and trash can be big business.  Municipalities or their agents may protect their interests with an ordinance.  People going around and taking the good stuff can impact their bottom line.

In New York City, all recyclable materials set out of disposal are considered the property of the city.   In Texas, the right of ownership has not been forfeited but transferred to the waste-hauling company.

Related link: “Taylorsville Police Cracking Down on Scavengers”

The town wants to prevent nuisance behaviors.

Even if the local government is not concerned with increased privacy protection or the value of the recyclables, they may seek to deter nuisance behaviors.

Many people feel that the trash pickers create a mess or create health hazards.  Others simply do not want to see or hear people picking through trash in their neighborhood.  Some municipalities are trying to combat nuisance behaviors and regulate trash-picking by requiring scavengers to obtain a permit.

There are mandatory recycling quotas.

More and more cities are keeping track of how much people are recycling.  This is sometimes accomplished by putting a computer chip in the bins. By taking from people’s recycling bins, you could be setting them up for fine.

3) The item is in public space.

If something is on the curb is it free garbage day
Photo by Hadley Paul Garland

Let’s say that you glance into someone’s garage and see a pile of trash with something that you would like to free-cycle. It is dirty, piled haphazardly, and someone has even written, “I am piece of trash, and I am intended for disposal,” on it with a sharpie.  You are not free to take it as you are trespassing and the resident has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Not all curbs are public space.  Curbs that are within the curtilage of a private space and are not open to public use are off limits.  Ask yourself if you or anyone else is legally entitled to walk there.

Conclusions on “If something is on the curb, is it free?”

Why would anyone want to stop you from taking trash?  Shouldn’t you be able to help save resources and prevent waste?

In most cases, you are free to take stuff from the curb if it is intended for disposal.  You will have to check the local laws and ordinances, because they can be a bit tricky.

If you enjoyed “If Something Is on the Curb, Is It Free?” check out this related post:

Free Stuff on the Curb: 29 tips for scoring big

Featured image by Bob Mical

Leave a Reply