You’re strolling down the street, minding your own business, when you suddenly come across a stray trash can that seems to have been abandoned curbside. It’s almost in perfect condition, with no apparent damage, and you can’t help but recall the old adage, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Before you know it, you’re itching to take this seemingly unwanted prize home with you. But wait! The thought crosses your mind—could claiming this lonely waste receptacle be considered… stealing?
Is It Illegal to Steal a Trash Can?
Stealing the garbage can itself is definitely illegal as it is public property. In a sense, It is similar to stealing benches from the public parks. However, stealing someone’s garbage might not qualify for “illegal stealing” as the owner of that trash has given up his rights to those items in the trash.
What is Dumpster (Trash Can) Diving?
Dumpster diving is a practice where individuals search through large commercial, residential, industrial, and construction containers, as well as standard household waste containers or curbside piles, for items that have been discarded by their owners but are still deemed useful to the picker.
People commonly search for clothing, furniture, food, and other items in good working condition. Some do this out of necessity, while others do it for fun or as a means to earn extra income.
The term “dumpster diving” emerged in the 1980s as a combination of “diving” and the large commercial trash container commonly known as a “dumpster.”
The terms for this activity vary across different countries, with expressions such as “garbage picking,” “bin-diving,” and “skip dipping” being used.
Some do it to reduce their ecological footprint, rescuing usable items from destruction and diverting them to those who can make use of the items. Others might do it as a form of art, using discarded materials to create unique artworks or installations. 
Is Stealing Trash Illegal?
In most cases, stealing trash or dumpster diving is not considered illegal. It is technically legal in all 50 states, as long as it does not conflict with any city, county, or state ordinances.
When a trash bag is placed on the curb for pickup, it becomes public domain, which means that anyone, from the police to a neighbor, can search or take items from the trash.
However, if the trash can is in an enclosed area or on private property, a person could be cited for trespassing or even theft if they try to rummage through the garbage.
In some cities, like New York City, it is illegal to take items from the trash and place them in a vehicle. This law is in place to deter organized criminal groups from profiting from people’s discarded items.
Nevertheless, individuals on foot are allowed to pick up items placed on the curb, as per the city’s Department of Sanitation.
Furthermore, using someone’s confidential information for criminal purposes, which might be obtained from dumpster diving, is illegal and can result in criminal consequences like a fine, jail time, or even civil damages for losses. 
Why Do People Steal Trash?
People often choose to get other people’s trash for a variety of reasons:
1- Financial necessity: As some individuals struggle to afford the basic necessities of life. Stealing trash can provide access to food, clothing, and other usable items that have been discarded by others but are still in usable condition.
2- To support an environmentally conscious lifestyle: By salvaging items that would otherwise go to waste, dumpster divers help reduce the impact of consumerism and waste on the environment. This practice aligns with the beliefs of many sustainability-focused individuals.
3- To earn extra income: By searching through discarded waste, they may find valuable items that can be resold for profit. This can include anything from electronics and appliances to collectibles and vintage items.
4- Out of curiosity or for the thrill of discovering hidden treasures: These individuals may view the practice as a form of urban exploration, unearthing items that tell a story about the people who discarded them and the society in which they live.
Is It Legal to Take Items Out of Recycling Bins?
In the case of recycling bins, it’s best to avoid taking any items altogether. Many cities have enacted anti-scavenging laws to prevent the theft of recyclable materials, which often have a monetary value.
For example, the New York City Department of Sanitation claims ownership of all recyclables placed on the curb for collection.
To ensure you’re obtaining discarded items legally, it’s always a good idea to ask the owner for their permission.
Alternatively, you can search for specific items on websites like Craigslist or join networks that connect people giving away items to those interested in taking them. 
Are There Anti-Scavenging Laws for Recyclables?
There are anti-scavenging laws in place for recyclables in many cities across the United States. These laws vary by location, but generally, they prohibit people from taking recyclable materials from designated recycling bins and containers. The goal of these laws is to prevent the theft of recyclable materials and ensure that their value is returned to the community as intended.
For example, in Davis, California, removing recyclables from carts or commercial containers is considered stealing, as stated by the Davis Municipal Code 32.01.060.
The law was put into place to protect the recycling program’s funding and return revenue directly to the ratepayers in the form of lower service rates.
Overall, anti-scavenging laws aim to provide a fair and legal system for managing recyclable materials while ensuring that the community benefits from the collection and recycling of these valuable resources. 
What Are the Best Ways to Obtain Discarded Items?
There are several ways to obtain discarded items legally and ethically, ensuring that you are not violating any laws or trespassing on private property.
One of the best ways is to simply ask your neighbors or friends if they have any items they no longer need or plan to discard.
You can also check local classifieds and online forums, such as Craigslist, for curbside alerts. These alerts often inform members of the community when items have been placed on the curb or in public spaces for free pick up.
This method not only allows you to find discarded items without trespassing but also gives you an opportunity to discover more valuable items that may have been placed for free by the owner.
Another great resource for obtaining discarded items is joining a local Freecycle network. These networks connect people who want to give away items with those who are looking to pick up unwanted goods.
Remember to Be Careful with Sensitive Documents in Your Trash
When disposing of personal or sensitive documents, it is crucial to take extra measures to ensure that your information remains safe and secure.
By opting for digital delivery of statements and bills, you significantly reduce the amount of paper waste containing personal information. Nonetheless, it is vital to ensure that your digital storage methods are secure.
For the remaining paper waste that cannot be avoided, shredding is the best way to prevent potential thieves from piecing together your personal information.