Is Dumpster Diving Illegal in US? An Ultimate Guide to Understand Laws

    Dumpster Diving

    It is an old saying that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” While this may be true, the growth of dumpster diving has caused a massive backlash from big store outlets as well as, caused danger for dumpster divers due to the preventative measures taken by store owners to prevent people from diving in their trash. You, who may be new to diving, might be wondering: if the danger is so big, why do they do it?

    Dumpster divers hope to find left over and thrown away stock in store dumpsters and even scout wealthy neighborhoods, eager to find thrown away goods in partial condition. They have taken to Youtube and other social media, displaying their “hauls” of hundreds and even thousands of dollars worth of products they have collected from dumpster diving at locales such as Ulta, Sephora, Target, and more. 

    With the growth of capitalism, individuals who are eager to consume products but don’t have the funds to do so are attracted to the idea of inherently getting goods for free by just taking a dive in a store trash bin. The process seems humbling but in fact, divers find it thrilling and even addicting. They sell products, give them to family members, and even donate repeat finds to their local shelters if they are unopened and in good condition.

    But the dangers of dumpster diving outweigh the benefits. Dumpster diving can lead to injury and even arrests. Here is everything you need to know about the laws surrounding dumpster diving. 

    What is Dumpster Diving?

    Dumpster diving means is going through trash bins on either residential or commercial property, or store containers, in order to find goods to sell, donate, and use. Dumpster diving seems harmless—if no one is using it, why not let the divers take it? Even more, some of these divers find new products, clean them, and donate them to shelters. 

    A lot of stores and food places throw out stock that hasn’t been selling or is partially used because they can’t display them any longer due to safety rules and regulations put in place on expiry dates, open products, malfunctioning products, etc. This seems wasteful especially because of the poverty and food crisis in America. Individuals who dumpster dive believe that these goods can be put to you. 

    However, the implications of dumpster diving can also be dangerous. Malicious individuals dive in dumpsters to gain access to information that can be used to hack people's accounts. Even more, the discomfort propelled by dumpster diving is abounding. It’s an invasion of privacy. 

    Nevertheless, when it comes to commercial places, stores have taken steps to prevent divers. For example, Ulta, a popular spot for diving, spills makeup products out and breaks eyeshadow palettes before throwing them away, so that divers won’t find use in them and will be driven away from their store. Clothing stores will rip garments and food places will mash and mix food products. 

    The negative backlash for diving is apparent… which begs the question of laws related to dumpster diving. 

    Dumpster Diving Law In the US 

    In 1988, during the Supreme Court decision of California vs. Greenwood, trash was ruled legal as long as it didn’t conflict with city, county or state ordinances. Therefore, diving is legal because once someone throws something out, they have forfeited their ownership to the public. 

    However, if the building had marked their property with a trespassing sign, you are liable to fines, tickets, and arrests.  Just in 2020, two individuals were arrested in Georgia for dumpster diving behind a shopping center. 

    Interestingly, Rob Greenfield, an activist for sustainability issues, promotes forging trash for food because of his concern for the food crisis. Rob says,  “Dumpster diving is not the answer to The Global Food Waste Scandal but it really brings it to the attention of others and gets people thinking. I’ve dived into over 1,000 dumpsters in 25 states across the United States…I’ve found that I can collect $1,000’s of dollars worth of perfectly good food in a matter of hours in nearly every city across the United States that I’ve been dumpster diving in.” Rob promises to pay for tickets if individuals reach out to him regarding arrests and fines diving for food.  

    Various opinions and laws filled with loopholes—when it comes down to the legality of dumpster diving, it depends on your state and whether trespassing is prohibited on the property. 

    To Know more about law, Just

    States where dumpster diving is illegal

    When it comes to federal and state, dumpster diving is legal. When it comes to private property and properties with warning signs or locks on dumpsters, diving is illegal. The tricky part is county laws, for laws, and corporate laws. You must do your research for these.  You can search local commercial properties and contact them regarding their regulations for diving and search online for your county’s website in which they have probably listed dumpster diving laws. 

    You can find a full list of each state’s own laws related to dumpster diving


    1. What is dumpster diving?
      Dumpster diving is the practice of collecting objects left behind by owners of big commercial, municipal, corporate, and infrastructure containers. Consider the adage "one man's junk is another man's treasure." Dumpster divers look for goods in decent functioning order such as groceries, furniture, clothes, makeup, among other things. Some people engage in this activity because they must due to various factors like hunger and financial stress, while others do it for activist purposes or for financial gain in which they sell the items they found.
    2. Where is dumpster diving legal?
      Dumpster diving is technically legal all throughout the United States, however, you must be aware of your county laws before jumping in the trash. Divers usually coin the phrase, “Dumpster diving is legal, trespassing is not.” They are wary of property signs and laws before diving at a certain place.
    3. How to dumpster dive?
      Dumpster diving is a morally gray issue. If you choose to do so, the proper safety measures need to be taken. Learn about the legislation in your area. It will be beneficial to be aware of the legal concerns you pose before diving blindly. Take note of any dumpsters nearby that are unlocked or bear a trespassing sign. Understand what to look for and when trash is typically disposed of.
    4. Is dumpster diving illegal in the US?
      Dumpster diving is not illegal in the United States after the ruling made by the Supreme Court during California v. Greenwood. Individuals forfeit their right to trash and that is why it is able to be taken by the public for their own use. However, you must search for specifics when it comes to county laws. You risk fines, penalties, and arrest if the building displayed a trespassing sign on their property and you dove there.
    5. Can you get arrested for dumpster diving?
      You can only get arrested for dumpster diving if you trespass on private property or open a locked dumpster otherwise, dumpster diving is legal as individuals forfeit their right to trash as soon as it is dropped off on the curb. Research your county laws to be sure before you attempt to dive. When businesses and individuals restrict their property with public signs and you disregard following them, you are responsible for your own arrest.

    James Cooper

    I am a brand reputation manager at citylocal101, reside in New York City and is in the forefront of developing and putting into practice competitive strategies to elevate companies. Since graduating from Arizona State University, I was immediately pr...