Is Dumpster Diving Illegal In the USA?

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One often spots useful items discarded in a dumpster. Perhaps the previous owner was moving and didn’t want the hassle of taking them, or a piece of furniture looks shabby, but you are confident you could restore it. You may wonder if you need permission to remove items from a dumpster or if it is legal to help yourself.


Dumpster diving is legal in all fifty states of the USA. However, the activity may be limited by specific city, state, or country laws. One may not dumpster dive in areas where it could be construed as trespassing. It is also illegal in areas with warning signs or locks on the dumpsters.

So, it’s a yes, no, sort of answer that contains many grey areas. If you know how to do it, there are plenty of bargains to be saved from the dump, which could even make you some money. Let’s check some tips about how to dumpster dive legally and safely.

Is Dumpster Diving Illegal In The USA?

Dumpster diving to find discarded treasures or even food is not illegal according to federal law, but unless you know how to do it right, you may find yourself in a nasty legal situation if you get caught. Therefore, before you start harvesting items from dumpsters, it is essential to do careful research and understand other legalities surrounding this activity.

Property that has been relinquished by its owner and placed in a dumpster or on the street, in other words, garbage, technically becomes public domain. However, suppose the dumpster is situated on private property, such as behind a store or in a yard. In that case, one cannot trespass to grab a discarded item from the trash as it still belongs to the person who owns the property.


If you are thinking of dipping into a local dumpster to upcycle a few discarded items, let’s take a look at things you need to keep in mind:

  • Do not attempt to open a locked dumpster – this is illegal.
  • You may not dumpster dive if there is clear signage prohibiting the activity.
  • You may not enter private property to access the dumpster or trash area. Removing anything from a dumpster located on private property is considered stealing. So, in addition to being in trouble for trespassing, actually removing anything will be a further hurdle.
  • You may not remove recyclables – these become the property of the recycling company as soon as they are discarded. While some divers specifically target recyclable items, these cannot be removed from designated recycling dumpsters. Removing these items may be considered stealing, which may result in a fine.
  • You must never litter – there are specific and usually stringent by-laws about littering in most areas. Waste is placed in the dumpster to keep the area neat. Over-enthusiastic or hurried dumpster divers must pay attention to keeping the dumpster tidy to avoid run-ins with business owners or law enforcement.
  • Do not create a nuisance, block an area, make a noise, or refuse to leave a dumpster if requested to do so. This could be construed as disorderly conduct that may result in a fine or even arrest.

There is some grey area about when a garbage bag or dumpster becomes public property. If the garbage is out on the curb, it may be considered public property. If the bags are leaning up against the wall of a building, it could be argued that they still belong to the owner.

Therefore, it is critical to remain alert and pay attention to what is happening around you if you are dumpster diving. If someone asks you to leave, comply immediately to avoid any potential fines or even possible arrest.

Can You Make Money Dumpster Diving?

It is not impossible to survive off dumpster diving – if you know what you live in the right area, know what you are doing, and follow all the rules carefully. One professional dumpster diver in Texas made over $100 thousand in one year!

But before you resign from your office job to begin your career, it can be a game of luck, and there are plenty of hazards along the way that could trip you up. Dumpster diving can be particularly lucrative if you have an interest in refurbishing or upcycling items.

Discarded items sometimes just need a lick of paint and some new screws to be good as new and dumpster divers are often also furniture flippers. Knowing how to find items, refinish them, and list them for sale is quite literally turning trash into treasure. You may even find antique furniture which can net a hefty price tag if restored properly.


Other valuable and frequently dived items are metals. Various appliances that frequently find their way into regular dumpsters, like broken TVs, phones, and computers, have wiring or parts that can be harvested and sold.

Where Are The Best Places To Dumpster Dive?

The moment any discarded items are placed outside a private or business property, they become public domain. That means that technically anyone can go through it and remove items, so long as you are not trespassing, disobeying clear signage, or in contravention of local regulations.

While your leftover household kitchen scraps and old cereal boxes may not create much excitement amongst the dumpster diving community, plenty of really great items get thrown out every day that can make dumpster diving a profitable hobby. That is if you know where to find them.

So, let’s take a look at some good places to start your search for dumpster treasures:

  • Focus on residential areas and apartment complexes in the first week of the month. That is when most people move and tend to discard useful stuff rather than move it.
  • Construction sites, especially where there is remodeling – New homeowners often give their homes a new facelift soon after they move in. You could score anything from bathroom vanities, old tubs, kitchen cabinets, shelving, and more from the outside skip.
  • Grocery stores – While it is not advisable to take any food that may be contaminated and definitely never take meat, food with defective packaging or packets of fruit with one moldy item are frequently dumped. Cartons of eggs with one cracked egg or 6-packs of items where one is damaged usually result in the entire package being thrown away. The food itself is perfectly fresh and useable.
  • Retail Stores – This can often be a rich picking ground for dumpster divers. Always just be highly aware of any signage prohibiting dumpster diving and never climb over fences or closed gates to access these dumpsters.
  • Yard Sales – It is often worth taking a trip around neighborhoods at the end of yard sale events. Most homeowners aren’t keen to move unsold items back into storage and often put useful things out for pickup.

Why Is Dumpster Diving Frowned Upon?

Legally, once garbage has been left on the curb, the person throwing the items away does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This is why it is essential never to throw away personal information documents – once it finds its way into the dumpster, that information may very well find itself in the wrong hands.

The loss of potentially sensitive information and the feeling of invasion of privacy are two top reasons most people don’t want anyone picking through their garbage. However, lawmakers, business owners, and officials are not just being bad sports by trying to curtail trash pickers – they have some very valid arguments.

Dumpster diving can be potentially dangerous. Besides all sorts of nasty biohazardous materials that may have contaminated the rest of the contents, rusted objects, broken glass, and hazardous objects are potential dangers inside dumpsters.


Restaurants and food stores, in particular, are sensitive about people rummaging through the garbage. This is because of the concern of legal consequences they may face if the dumpster diver eats something that makes them sick.

Another potential problem for dumpster divers is being caught inside the dumpster when the collection truck comes. Jumping into dumpsters to rummage through the contents may not sound like it is harming anyone, but unless you are athletic and alert, being inside a dumpster when it is being emptied can prove deadly.

Dumpster diving in some areas is not limited to one or two people who chance upon a great item that they can upcycle. For some, it has become a regular or daily activity, and the term freegan has emerged.

What Is A Freegan?

A new generation of dumpster divers has emerged who follow an ideology called freeganism. The idea is that individuals limit their participation in the economy – in a nutshell, they avoid buying items, particularly food, as an act of protest against the current food system.

The term freegan is made up of the words free and vegan, although the vegan objection to the exploitation of animals does not come into this equation. Freegans reject and protest against everything to do with the modern food system and therefore live off the food they collect from dumpsters.

While it may seem a little foreign to most people to not pay for food, the statistics around food waste in the United States are staggering. According to the US Dept of Agriculture, 30-40% of food produced is wasted and ends up in landfills. Freegans demand a restructuring of the food distribution and land use strategy as they argue it is a waste of earth’s resources.

So, while all dumpster divers may not be freegans, freegans are highly likely to be dumpster divers.

They refuse to purchase and pay for food since vast quantities of food are discarded each day – in many cases, fresh fruit and vegetables are thrown away because of slight irregularities in shape or size.

Besides dumpster diving mostly for food, freegans differ slightly from commercial dumpster divers. The group often has strong alliances with anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist organizations. That being said, freeganism can have some social downsides if you have guests.


The reaction to being about to eat food from a dumpster.

Is Dumpster Diving Dangerous?

Even though dumpster diving is technically legal across the United States, there are plenty of state and city laws related to the activity that could land you in hot water if you ignore them. These laws are not meant to be mean-spirited but are usually intended to protect the public.

While professional dumpster diving may sound like the perfect occupation to some, it does not come without extreme inherent risks. According to health experts, potential health risks inside dumpsters include sharp cuts from glass, nails, or metal appliances. On top of that, there’s the risk of dangerous bacteria building up inside the trash area, especially during the summer months.

One of the most horrifying accidents involving this activity is recounted by a dedicated dumpster diver who found himself inside a dumpster when it was hoisted into the air. Worse was still to come, and he was tipped into the trash compactor. The injuries were profound, but it is still incredible that he survived.

This dumpster diver’s advice is NEVER physically climb into a dumpster to search for things. Instead, reach-in or use long grabbers to pick things up – climbing inside is too risky.

Bin diving is the smaller cousin of full-on dumpster diving. Most residential areas use bins placed on the street on collection day. Once the bin is moved onto the curb, it becomes the public domain. While it may undoubtedly be frowned on by many homeowners who don’t want anyone rummaging through their garbage, it is not illegal.

In some ways, bin diving is less dangerous than climbing inside large dumpsters to retrieve discarded items. However, it can be a lot more time-consuming. Note that local regulations in certain areas may prohibit this activity, so always check before you are surprised to find yourself on the wrong side of law enforcement.

The Bottom Line About Dumpster Diving

It is legal to dumpster dive in any state in the United States. However, there are specific regulations that regulate the activity. Not all dumpsters are fair game, and divers need to remain respectful of trespassing regulations and other by-laws about dumpster diving in their area.

Although it is possible to find some great stuff by rummaging through the trash, it can also be risky, especially in residential areas. Sorting the valuable items from the general garbage that could be tainted with biohazardous material or mixed with broken glass can be dangerous.

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