making arrest
Photo by Elvert Barnes

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 spaceHowever, 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)

trash picking and federal law

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

trash picking laws and recycling
Is this scrapper committing a crime?

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.

recyclable materials value chart

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

trash picking local laws
Photo by raymondclarkeimages

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.

Trespassing

trash picking and trespassing

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:

  1. The proximity of the thing to the dwelling;
  2. Whether the thing is within an enclosure surrounding the home;
  3. What the thing is used for.
  4. What steps, if any, the resident took to protect the thing from observation/ access by people passing by.”

-from The Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law

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

identity theft
Identity thieves will try anything. Photo by Gale

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.

Littering

trash picking laws and littering

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

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:

Related post: Free Stuff on the Curb: 29 tips for scoring big

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.

Advertisements

free stuff on curb featured

Scoring free stuff on the curb is a great way to beat the system.  You are keeping stuff out of the landfill, finding unusual items, and keeping money in your pocket.  In some cases, the found items are better than what you would have purchased in a big box store.

If you are reading this, you probably do not have a psycho-social hangup with taking home something that someone else discarded.  People who can go beyond illogical pressures can save some real money.  Since you are willing to think for yourself, here are 27 tips for scoring great free stuff on the curb.

Approaches to scoring free stuff on the curb

1) Target affluent neighborhoods and big houses.

wealthy home

This is like how trick-or-treat-ers swarm to the rich side of town.  If you go to the rich side of town, you get the best stuff.

People with disposable income dispose of a lot of property.  Many will not take the time to post items on craigslist or even to take items to a donation center.  Whatever their reasons may be, high-income people put out high-quality curbside finds. Familiarize yourself with the trash schedules in the well-to-do neighborhoods in your area.

In addition, grabbing the good stuff in high-income neighborhoods is easy; it is less likely that someone who lives there wants to be seen trash picking.

It is important to note that some of the best finds come from large, older homes that are continually purging their contents.  The larger and older the home, the more likely that the stuff I am interested will end up on the curb.

2) Think seasonally.

Spring is often the best time to find great free stuff on the curb.  Many people are moving, spring cleaning is under way, colleges and universities are wrapping up, and the divorce rate reaches its yearly peak.  This is a perfect time for you to get your own home organized and upgraded with some free stuff from the curb.

Spring is not the only season to consider.  The holiday season, the end of a particular sports seasons, garage cleaning season, yard-sale season, and so on might offer what you seek.

3) Note trash schedules.

trash day
Photo by Bob Mical

Your own trash schedule is not the only one to keep in mind.  Think about the neighborhoods that you want to target and get to know their schedules.  Taking a different route home on a certain day of the week might double your chances of discovering curbside gold.

4) Cruise colleges and universities.

Here in Philadelphia we celebrate Penn Christmas in May.  When the students move away, they toss tons of useful stuff.

Even when the students are not moving away, colleges and universities have great potential for garbage picking.  When offices are being renovated or reorganized, schools throw away great furniture, filing cabinets, office supplies, and more. Oftentimes these items are institution quality and built to last.

Drive around the back of the building to see what is there.  Just make sure that it really is trash and not waiting to be picked up and moved.

5) Check other institutions and businesses.

Retirement homes, office buildings, factories, libraries, etc. throw away some great stuff. They may not have a plan in place to dispose of, re-purpose, or donate perfectly serviceable items.

Look around these targets, but make sure that you are not trespassing or stealing.

6) Go off the beaten path.

free stuff on the the curb back alley

To find the best curbside gold, you may have to travel the road less traveled.  Service roads, alley ways, and loading zones are where the curb treasure awaits.  The next time you leave a commercial park, shopping center, or school, exit by driving around the back of the buildings.

Do not forget to stay safe.  Do not go anywhere where you do not feel comfortable.  Pay attention to lighting, entrances and exits, and visibility.

7) Follow yard sales, estate sales, flea markets, etc.

garage sale glasses

If you want to get the best stuff at a yard sale, go early.  If you want free stuff from the yard sale, go late.  Many neighborhood yard sales occur before garbage day because they know that many people will trash things that do not sell.  Consider hitting the yard sales after everyone has closed up shop.

8) Use apps, websites, and alerts.

There are many apps and websites helping people find free stuff on the curb.  This is the best way to go if you are looking for specific items. The drawback of this approach is that you need to be ready to act quickly.  Sometimes listings are not kept current or you arrive two seconds too late.

  • Craigslist free section
  • Nextdoor app
  • Curbsurf.com
  • Facebook (local groups)

9) Travel on foot.

No matter how slowly you drive past, you will never get the best view.  You will see more stuff and avoid wasting time on items that are truly garbage by taking the ol’ shoe leather express. Most of the cool things I have found have been while walking my dogs.  Get some exercise, check things out, and come back later if something big is worth picking.

Free stuff on the curb best practices

10) Inspect finds.

If thoroughly checking out a trashed item causes you embarrassment, get over it.  It is better to spend the time making sure items are what you want than to waste your time and energy.  Make sure all of the parts are there, look for irreparable damage, move any moving parts, and look for maker’s marks and labels.  Even if something is free, check it thoroughly before investing your time and energy.

11) Avoid bed-bugs and other pests.

upholstered items and bedbugs
Don’t do it!

Bed bugs and other pests are hard to detect and hard to kill.  Bed bugs are resistant to heat, cold, and starvation.  They can even hide in the folds of lampshades or inside electronics. Upholstered furniture, pillows, and stuffed animals are out of the question. When in doubt, leave it out.

You can treat large items with pesticides, but it is easier to avoid all upholstered items completely.  Any kind of textile that cannot be treated with serious heat easily (washer and dryer heat) is a no go.

12) Be prepared and safe.

There are a few things that you should keep in your vehicle to make sure that your curb surfing is practical and safe.

  • Work gloves
  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Eye protection
  • Straps and tie-downs
  • Flashlight
  • Basic tool kit (screw drivers, utility knife, hammer, pliers, etc.)

Be safe with your body.  Do not try to manage heavy or awkward items alone, be aware of your surroundings, and carefully secure items for transport.

13) Learn how to disassemble.

Depending on what you are looking for, you may need to do some disassembly.  A few well-placed swings of a hatchet or the ability to locate mounting screws makes all the difference.

I have smashed IKEA bookcases to re-purpose the melanin, removed table and desk tops, pulled drawers for new storage, and snatched hinges, casters, and hardware.  Just because you do not want the entire item as it sits, doesn’t mean there is nothing of worth.

14) Get handy.

pallet wood garden cart
I built this garden cart with discarded pallet wood and bike tires.

Many people are completely intimidated by minor repairs and modifications.  As a result, some quality items with minor defects are free for the taking.

Finding free stuff on the curb gives you a no-risk way to increase your skills.  You might be amazed by what you can accomplish with a few screws, a little glue, and some paint.

If you would like to learn more about how I made this cart from discarded pallets, check out my post “Get Started Turning Pallets into Stuff“.

15) Think creatively.

free stuff on the curb upcycling
I turned two old windows into neat cabinet doors.

Open your mind to re-purposing.  A small dresser can become a bathroom vanity.  A shoe rack might help you organize your art supplies.  A desktop can become a work bench.  Just because an item is no longer serviceable for it’s intended use, doesn’t mean it needs to go to the landfill.

16) Know garbage picking laws.

free stuff on the curb legality

You do not want to end up paying a hefty fine for trying to save a few bucks.  You also want to avoid unpleasant arguments.  Check your local regulations so that you do not end up in hot water. Here are some basics for understanding garbage picking laws:

  • Pay attention to signs and notices; they have legal bearing.
  • You are more likely to get in trouble for trespassing than taking garbage.  If the garbage is on private space, it is subject to privacy protection.
  • Garbage left on public space is no longer private property (Greenwood vs. California).  The contents of garbage bins in public space (the curb) are not protected by law.
  • If you are going through garbage on private property, you are trespassing and invading privacy.
  • Some cities (like New York) prohibit the taking of items that are intended for recycling.  This recycling makes the city or the city’s subcontractor serious money, so they do not want people grabbing it.
  • There are no federal laws preventing people from taking other peoples’ trash.
  • Some local laws prohibit trash picking.  A municipality may decide that people are being inconvenienced or generally put-off by scavenging and establish ordinances and fines.

“My wife is always trying to get rid of me. The other day she told me to put the garbage out. I said to her I already did. She told me to go and keep an eye on it.”

-Rodney Dangerfield

For more in-depth information on this topic, check out my related post:  Trash Picking Laws

17) Consider reselling.

I was surprised to learn that many people make real money from what they find in the trash.  If you are so inclined, look for items that might be valuable to someone else.

Related website: Garbagefinds.com

Top things to to target

18) Building materials

free building materials
My garage is stocked with free project materials.

If you take on little projects from time to time, keep an eye out for free building materials.  (Demolition dumpsters are especially good for this.) If you have the storage space, grab extra 2 x 4s, leftover plywood, random boards, etc. whenever you can.  Your stash might save you a trip to the home store on your next project or even provide inspiration for an unanticipated project.

19) Wooden Furniture (non-upholstered)

free stuff on the curb wooden furniture
This Danish side-table just needed a bit of glue and some polish.  The Cocker Spaniel is also salvaged.

I am shocked at the beautiful pieces of furniture that people throw away.  People trash this furniture due to a minor defect or because their tastes have changed. I often find that this furniture is better quality than the particle-board monstrosities that you find in Target or on Way-fair.

Pay special attention to wooden pieces even if they need some TLC. Wood is a very forgiving material to work.  With some basic tools and supplies, you might turn a piece of trash into a unique showpiece.

20) Outdoor furniture

free stuff on the curb patio furniture
This aluminum patio set was free and will never rust. I simply made the wooden tops and bought new cushions.

During the summer months, home stores offer a wide selection of replacement pillows and pads for outdoor furniture.  Nevertheless, many people throw away an entire outdoor set as soon as the cushions have been damaged by the elements.

You are the winner in this situation.  Snatch up that patio furniture, take a couple of measurements, and buy replacement cushions that match your style.  Now you have a new set for pennies on the dollar.

21) Vintage curios

best free stuff on the curb old maps
I found this awesome set of old maps in a school dumpster.  I can skip Google whenever I have a question on the Louisiana Purchase (almost daily).

If you live in an area with some older homes or institutions, you might discover people throwing away unusual, vintage items.  I am always on the lookout for strange little curios that add nostalgia to my home office.

22) Shelving

Basic shelves are one of those things that you should never buy.  Why pay money for something that is only going to hold laundry detergent, winter boots, or sporting goods? If you can exercise a bit of patience, the shelves that you need will show up for free.

23) Bins and containers

Unless you really need all of your containers to be uniform, you can find all of the storage that you need for free.  People seem to consider plastic bins disposable even though they are pretty durable, so hose them off and get your stuff organized for free.

If you are not sure if the bins are meant to be trash, leave them be.  Your image will not be improved by having retired people chasing you down the block.

24) Plastic coolers

free stuff on the curb coolers
Coolers are versatile.  The red one has been converted for brewing beer, and the grey one has become a solar generator for camping trips.

I don’t think that I have ever paid money for a cooler.  People are always throwing them away.  Maybe some people’s days of picnicking or tailgating are behind them, or maybe they are too lazy to clean them out.  Whatever the case may be, a bit of soapy water means a new cooler for you.

25) Picture frames

When people throw away artwork, posters, and framed documents, they also throw away the frame.  This is really a waste as many of the frames are really nice.

If a frame is close to the size you need, the framing store can perfect the framing by cutting a new mat.  If you are crafty, you can cut the new mat yourself.

26) Kitchen wares

Saving kitchen wares

High quality kitchen ware is expensive, yet people toss these durable goods to the curb just because they are dirty.  Some steel wool or some Bar Keepers Friend will polish up them up to look like new.  You will often discover that the saved item is very high quality.

Note: Avoid damaged non-stick cookware because the chemicals released by the scratches can be harmful.

27) Tools

Tools do have no expiration date.  When people clean out their garages and basements, they often throw away hundreds of dollars in tools. Where they see a worthless metal thingy, I see a $100-dollar sawyer’s vice.  They may not know what it’s for, but I do.

You do not have to know about obscure tools to benefit.  People are always tossing perfectly good hedge clippers, wrenches, hammers, saws, rakes, shovels, etc.  A new handle or some time with the sharpening stone can make all the difference.  Again, older is sometimes better as grandpa’s band saw is probably better made than what you will find in most stores.

28) Hobby materials

When it comes to hobbies, sometimes we just lose interest.  Other times the person who had the hobby has moved or passed away.  If you like a particular hobby, you might discover a huge bin of “garbage” that will keep you busy indefinitely.

29) Fitness and sporting goods

As with hobbies, fitness and sporting interests tend to come and go.  You will see everything from elliptical machines to fishing poles.  If you have a particular interest or keep a home gym, be on the look-out.

“Free Stuff on the Curb” conclusion

You may call it curb surfing, trash picking, dumpster diving, or free-cycling.  I call it fun, and I am not afraid to brag about the great stuff I have found. I feel that it signifies an ability to think creatively and scoff at convention.

Although many of these approaches have merit, my approach to finding free stuff on the curb is pretty simple.  I do not look for curb alerts, search postings, or do extra driving. I basically adjust where I walk my dogs and the route that I drive if I am on the prowl.

At this point in my life, I pretty much have everything that I need, so I can very selective.  Lately I have only been keeping an eye out for cool wooden furniture and project materials.

If you have a fondness for second-hand items, I wrote and in-depth post about shopping in thrift stores: Thrift Store Tips for Becoming a Jedi Master of Resale.

Were my free stuff on the curb tips helpful?  Is one of my tips erroneous? Did I miss an important tip? What is your best find ever? Please leave a comment.