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Is It Illegal to Go Through Someone’s Trash?

is it illegal to go through someone's trash

You may have heard of the saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” which, for the most part, is true for some people. That is why some like to go dumpster diving or forage through another person’s garbage or trash to look for anything valuable.

But the question is, is your trash still your property, and is it illegal if someone goes through it?

The Legality of Going Through Someone’s Trash

Most governments agree that rummaging in other people’s trash, provided it’s in a public space like the side of a road or a curb for pickup, is legal. Once you put your trash in a public area, you have forfeited all your ownership rights to the items since it belongs to the public domain.

When you discard your trash, you have no reason to expect any more privacy. So if the police want to search your dumpster, they don’t need a warrant anymore.

But if your trash is still within your property. Or enclosed within a fence or something that sends a clear message of NO ENTRY, you can convict dumpster divers for illegal trespassing or even theft. 

Should You Check Your Local Laws for Garbage Ordinances?

Even though most of the world agrees that dumpster diving is legal, you still need to check your local ordinances and laws to check if there are any regulations or guidelines if you go through someone else’s trash. 

For example, all 50 states in the US agree that dumpster diving is legal. But specific laws could dictate what you can’t do when dumpster diving, like businesses with dangerous trash. Or after you dumpster dive, you need to ensure to put everything back in its place. The same is more or less the same in Canada when the Supreme Court decided in the R v Patrick, 2009 SCC 17 that individuals lose their privacy rights in their garbage. Provided it’s not on private property. 

But it can be a bit confusing in the UK. Because some people hire skips (containers equivalent to a dumpster) to store materials and items like bricks, aggregates, or other bulky items when there are no spaces, especially on construction sites. Rummage these containers, and you could end up in jail for theft.

So it’s essential to research your local laws before you do any dumpster diving on your own. You can try looking at your local government’s websites. The more you know, the safer you will be. In countries where dumpster diving is legal, you can use the guide below:

  • Federal and State Laws: Legal
  • County Laws: There may be specific laws for dumpster diving depending on the county
  • City Law: Different cities may have various laws against dumpster diving.
  • Business Specific Laws: Some businesses produce specific kinds of trash that professionals should only handle.
  • Private Property: You can’t enter another person’s property to dumpster dive.
  • Warning signs or locked dumpsters: This is a sign that the owners don’t want anyone rummaging their trash. So it’s illegal.

Why Do People Go Through Someone’s Trash?

There are plenty of reasons why people dumpster dive. Below are some of them:

  • Making extra money: When people need some extra cash, one of the best places to search are in dumpsters. You can find valuable items in the trash that people have discarded. You just need to clean or repair them, and you can sell them for profit.
  • Food: It may sound unhygienic. But for people who can barely afford to feed themselves. Dumpster diving may earn them a free meal. In developed countries like the US, about 40 to 50 percent of their food turns into waste. And these can end up in trash cans. 

In the Philippines, extreme poverty led to people scavenging for food in dumpsters of restaurants or dumpsites to look for leftover food to turn into ‘pagpag‘ (cooked leftover food).  

  • Electronic Waste: Some people like to throw away electronics straight into the trash because of the cost to repair them, depreciated value, or the expense of upgrading them. It would be best to donate them, but some organizations don’t like accepting used items. There are even cases of vendors throwing undamaged electronics into landfills. So if you are looking for a new phone or PC, the dumpster might give you something free.
  • Clothing: Thrift stores will find cheap items they can easily resell, including clothes. And most of the time, it cost them nothing. If there are overstocks of unsellable things, they can go straight to the dumpster. So if you are looking for a new pair of clothes, you may find them at the dumpster of the thrift store.
  • Metal: You can sometimes find scrap metal in dumpsters that you can sell in recycling plants. 
  • Wood: You can use wood thrown away in dumpsters for construction purposes or heating.
  • Empty Cans and Bottles: Some countries have a system that recycles empty bottles and cans. And if you return them to stores, you may get paid. But it’s typically relatively low.

Dumpster Diving with Criminal Intentions 

While there are reasonable intentions as to why people dumpster dive, there are those that do it with criminal intentions.

For example, you can find plenty of personal information in people’s trash. Some of these are:

  • Birthdate
  • Social Security and Driver’s license information
  • Medical Information
  • Handwritten signatures 
  • Account numbers from bank statements and credit cards

Criminals can use such information to steal your identity. 

Criminals also dumpster dive to look for cash receipts as part of a fraud scheme called shoplisting. Once they find your cash receipts, they will steal the same items on the list and return them to stores for cash, which is much easier than selling them in pawnshops.


People will sometimes throw away items that may not be valuable to them but are to others, which is why people like to dumpster dive. But before you rummage someone else’s trash, you need to do some research first on what laws and regulations are present in your area for dumpster diving. So you can continue looking for valuable items without worrying you’ll go to jail. 

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