As the name implies, dumpster diving is the act of searching waste bins for useful discarded items. According to the Los Angeles Dumpster Diving Meet up Group, the practice is often an aspect of “freeganism,” a strategy for reducing waste and participation in the conventional economy. The legality of dumpster diving in California is wrought with gray areas. No specific law prohibits it but the nature of the activity can involve other legal concerns pertaining to trespassing and private property.
The Supreme Court ruling in California v. Greenwood establishes a basis for the legality of dumpster diving. The suspect, Greenwood, argued that since the evidence used to convict him of drug violations was found in his garbage, it was private property protected from warrantless search under the 4th Amendment. The Court ruled against Greenwood, stating that leaving trash in an area “particularly suited for public inspection” nullifies an expectation of privacy because, “it is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left along a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.”
Not all trash can be legally examined and taken. Taking trash from private property can violate trespassing laws. Another factor is whether or not residents or property owners take steps that demonstrate their expectation of privacy, such as placing the trash bins in secure locations or placing locks on their lids. It also depends on what type of trash is in question. For example, it is illegal to take items from designated recycling bins under California law.
Legal dumpster diving has enabled freeganism to operate openly. An L.A. freegan group argues “if we throw something away, we relinquish ownership of it. It should then become automatically available for anyone to make use of.” As of 2010, there are over 200 California cities registered on Freecycle.org, an online community dedicated to furthering the freegan and “gifting” movements in the interest of resource conservation.
The role of dumpster diving in identity theft complicates the issue. The National Association for Information Destruction reports that the California city of Modesto has considered a city-wide ban on dumpster diving that would make it illegal to "rummage, explore, tamper with, move, remove, tip, deface, destroy, scavenge or otherwise search" a waste container.
John Hoffman, author of “The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving” and subject of the documentary film “The Ultimate Dive,” by San Jose filmmaker Suzanne Girot, calls dumpster diving “an alternative economic vision.” He points out that every discarded item that someone reuses is one less thing that takes up energy to produce.
- dumpsters image by Andrew Orlemann from Fotolia.com