So, what kind of trouble can I get in for diving into the trash? Well aside from the physical dangers inherent in the practice, some legal constraints do exist.
The supreme court of Canada as well as the US Supreme Court have both ruled that once trash has been discarded it enters the public domain and therefore is not protected by privacy laws, and since the material has been rejected by the discarder, they no longer have legal claim to it.
The Canadian Supreme Court heard the case of R v. Patrick (2008). The police suspected Patrick of running a drug production laboratory within his home. With insufficient evidence to obtain a search warrant the police surreptitiously picked up Patrick’s garbage on six different occasions, once it had been left out for collection in opaque plastic bags. The evidence, found within the garbage, allowed the police to acquire a warrant for the search of Patrick’s home where an ecstasy production laboratory was discovered and Patrick was charged accordingly. Patrick’s defence, in an attempt to challenge the validity of the search warrant, argued that Patrick has a privacy interest in objects left in opaque plastic bags, and within the boundaries of his private property. In this case the Canadian Supreme Court concluded Patrick’s privacy interest was abandoned when he left the garbage for collection. Garbage left at the edge of one’s property is exposed to and accessible by any member of the public. Dumpster divers, animals and garbage collectors may all have access to the contents of one’s garbage, so any privacy interest in its contents is abandoned once left for collection.
The United States Supreme Court concluded in California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), that no expectation of privacy can hold over anything which runs the risk of being exposed to the public, therefore your trash becomes public domain as soon as it has been placed outside the home for pickup. In its decision the United States Supreme Court concluded with a statement of the US law of search and seizure: “[w]hat a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of [constitutional] protection.”
So, it’s within our rights to dig through the trash and lay claim to items found there. Where this becomes blurred in the eyes of the law is the subject of trespassing. Trespassing on private property is an illegal act and should be avoided. Business owners, property managers and home owners, if unpleased with your presence, will claim that you are trespassing upon their property in hopes of scaring you off. In most occasions it is wise to take this opportunity to leave the area to avoid confrontation. If the police get involved they will most likely side with the owner of the property. Remember you are within your rights but police officers are not the courts, a police officer will attempt to diffuse the situation and act within the boundaries of the law but in absence of clear guidelines they will leave the consequence to the discretion of the court. Remain calm, courteous, and respectful to all parties involved and accept the consequences graciously. Save your arguments for the judge, if it gets that far. If you left when warned and the owner is satisfied that you were frightened off they may decide to leave well enough alone, if not you may find the garbage secured behind a gate or locked within the bin the next time you drop in.
To clear up the trespassing boundary lines here are some examples of areas that are fair game and those that are off limits. Dumpsters in alleys are placed on public property and definitely on the market, dumpsters within fenced in compounds are on private property and require express permission before their treasures may be plundered. Garbage left at the curb or in the alley for pick up are fair game, however you may want to stay clear of trash left outside someone’s back door well within their property. A locked dumpster could arguably restrict public access and therefore may be protected under privacy laws, however an argument could be made that on the day of pick up the dumpster is left unlocked where by the contents then become accessible to the public voiding privacy protection. The lock itself is considered to be the property of the entity renting the rubbish bin, so the forceful removal of the lock could be construed as destruction of private property and possibly theft under $1000. So think twice before you cut that lock loose. If the lock happens to find its way to an unlocked state without being damaged or lost consider yourself fortunate.
Garbage dumps and waste transfer stations usually have strict no scavenging policies to protect them from liability claims filed from injured scavengers. Though you may not be trespassing you still must abide by their rules. Not all transfer stations are regulated and may have an open drop off policy for their area residents. If this is the case in your area, happy treasure hunting.
In almost all situations you will encounter regarding the law and diving, you can allow common sense to guide you. If you use conduct fitting of a business person you will be treated as one. If you act like you have something to hide you are sure to be treated like a criminal. When approached and asked to leave, remain courteous and accommodating, avoiding confrontation will serve you well. There is no need to fabricate elaborate stories to justify your presence as you have a right to be there. Be confident in that right and don’t allow yourself to be intimidated. Always clean up the area around the bin before you depart, this will show you mean no harm and strengthen your case for being allowed back.
On another note never pass up an opportunity to make a difference. Police officers and business owners are not your enemies. If the owner of a business asks you what you are doing feel free to start a dialogue and be honest about your actions. The owner pays to have their bin emptied so in a sense you are providing them with a valuable service. Let them know you are dedicated to cleaning up the planet as well as your immediate environment; they won’t want you there if you are constantly leaving a mess for them to clean up. Making friends could give you access to goods before they hit the bins or at the very least you may be able to acquire their consent to be there. Business owners usually have connections to other owners and can possibly spread word to others who may want to enlist your special services. If however you are disrespectful they may advise those same colleagues to restrict access to their bins as they plan to do to their own.
Recent developments in larger municipalities are bylaws making dumpster diving illegal. This can occur in larger centers where trash collection and disposal is handled through a contracted private firm. Private contractors are often paid for their services by the ton, hence the more we waste the more they profit. Presumably dumpster diving is a threat to the firm’s profitability and they will lobby the local government to create anti-scavenging bylaws to protect their garbage stream/bottom line. To find out if such a bylaw exists within your area contact your local bylaw enforcement officer, they are obligated to inform you of your rights when asked. While you’re at it make them your friend too, after all it’s not always what you know, it’s who you know.
In the UK it is illegal to scour the skips. Waste is considered to be the property of the discarder until it is collected. At the time of collection the garbage becomes the property of the collector who is responsible for it until it is properly disposed of. This system insures accountability for the waste at all times. Unfortunately the garbage resource is cut off from reclamation and recycling programs. Though the law prohibits skip diving many individuals risk prosecution to pursue their passion for found objects nevertheless. This law is seldomly enforced against skip divers but remains an instrument of deterrence.
Please keep in mind that laws change all the time, become involved in the decision making process through public office to keep your bins accessible. This post will not hold up as evidence in any court of law, do your own home work before you get in over your head. Happy hunting!