As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
When most people think of “dumpster diving”, they think of people looking for food. To be fair, that’s probably the common application. However, that’s not really what dumpster diving has been for me.
In the past couple of years I’ve made tens of thousands of dollars by finding items in good condition (or items that can be repaired) and reselling them online.
After all of the long night I’ve spent sneaking into dumpsters you can bet that I’ve been caught more than a few times.
However “getting caught” dumpster diving can mean a whole variety of different things depending on who catches you and what kind of defense you have prepared.
Well, first, let’s take a look at the legality of dumpster diving, then we’ll look at the best (and the worst!) things you can say in your defense if confronted, and finally, we’ll get into some tips that I’ve used to avoid a confrontation in the first place.
Is Dumpster Diving Legal?
In 1988, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of a man named Billy Greenwood, who was suspected by the local police in 1984 of selling drugs. An officer asked the garbage man to keep Greenwood’s trash separate so that it could be searched.
Drug paraphernalia was found, a warrant was obtained, Greenwood was found to be in possession of marijuana and cocaine, and was then arrested. The California court ruled that it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment and the case was dropped.
However, four years later, an appeal was heard by the federal Supreme Court, which ruled that garbage sent out for collection (i.e., in a dumpster or garbage can on the sidewalk or street) was no longer considered personal property.
In the majority opinion, Justice Byron White stated, essentially, that garbage is garbage and, unless there’s a city, county, or state law that prohibits it, dumpster diving is legal, and the police can execute warrantless searches of garbage out for collection.
Does That Mean Dumpster Diving is Always Legal?
At the time of writing, none of the 50 states have laws against the practice and it hasn’t been federally banned, either. However, many cities and counties do have laws against it, so you’ll want to check the dumpster diving laws in your area.
In most places, the punishment is usually a fine, not jail time, although it depends on the location. However, just because the act of taking things from the garbage is legal, it doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods.
In most cases, your biggest issue won’t be the police. It’ll be the store’s employees or a security guard, either of whom may want to hit you with trespassing charges. Since you’re probably on private property, they’re within their rights to do so.
This is a good time to point out that if there is a sign that says “no dumpster diving”, if there is a locked chain on the dumpster, a fence you have to climb over, or any other obstacle to getting inside the dumpster than lifting the lid, you shouldn’t do it.
There are plenty of accessible dumpsters that don’t require breaking trespassing laws or vandalizing a company’s property. You’d be way better off going with one of those instead.
I will say that many of the best places to dumpster dive are also the ones that are more difficult to get to or require a bit more bravery. You’ll have to assess the risk for yourself however.
Tips on How to Avoid Confrontation When Dumpster Diving
The first piece of advice I have is to maintain a strict dress code while going through a dumpster. I know a guy who wears a reflective vest (like a construction worker or a school crossing guard) when he’s out on the hunt. If you’ve ever heard that you can walk into any movie theater if you carry a ladder, this is the same idea.
Think about it: if you saw a guy in a reflective vest searching a garbage can, would you think he was dumpster diving? He told me once that most of the time, the only thing he ever hears is, “Wow, I’m glad I don’t have his job!”
I know another guy who wears his oldest and most rundown clothes because most people will assume he’s looking for food and leave him alone.
The second is to be unfailingly polite at all times if confronted. If you start yelling at the other person, condescendingly ask if they understand the law, or say “I know my rights” at any time, the situation is likely to escalate.
However, if you disarm the other person by speaking gently and without raising your voice, you’ll have a much better chance of success. Even the best defense can quickly become the worst if you scream it angrily.
The third tip goes without saying but I will say it anyway: please don’t hit anyone or throw anything at someone. The phrase “one crime at a time” comes to mind and if they have a case for trespassing, you’re already at the limit.
If anyone asks you to leave, always take that chance to get out of the situation. Most of the time, they’re not going the police involved if you stop the first time they ask, but they might if you choose to continue the confrontation.
Best Defenses for Dumpster Diving (4 Scenarios)
1. Caught By A Random Person
The best response to being caught in a dumpster depends on who’s confronting you since you’ll want to use a different response depending on who’s asking. We’ll start with “not in trouble” and work our way up to “yeah, you’re in trouble.”
First, let’s imagine a random person walking down the street asking you what you’re doing in the dumpster. It’s rather unlikely they’re going to care, but just in case, it’s a good idea to be prepared.
If you follow the tips about the dress code, this probably won’t be an issue. Another guy I know keeps an old ring in his pocket in case he’s confronted, so he can pretend to pull it out of the dumpster and declare his mission a success.
Another strategy is to have a joke in your pocket ready to go. If you make the person laugh, they’ll probably just keep walking. Something like, “I lost my dignity and I’m hoping it’s at the bottom of all this trash!”
Once when I got caught dumpster diving at a large apartment complex I simply said that I had thrown out something I wasn’t supposed to and my wife was not pleased at all. Whether the guy believed it or not he didn’t question it and I was able to slip away!
2. Caught By A Store Employee
This one can vary quite a bit because the response will depend on the individual employee. The best case scenario is you’re confronted by an underpaid employee who hates his boss, doesn’t want to fill out paperwork, and, at most, will ask you to leave.
However, you could find yourself confronted by a senior manager or a jobsworth who wants to see you punished simply because he has very little power in his job and enjoys using 100% of it when he can.
If you’re confronted by one of these, apologizing and walking away might be your best bet. Their jurisdiction ends at the store’s property line and they can’t pursue you any further.
This only works if they don’t know your name or anything about you, of course. If you’ve been shopping at this exact store for 15 years, the odds are pretty good one of the employees knows you by name.
3. Caught By A Security Guard
Our next scenario is the one you want to avoid at all costs: the overzealous security guard or especially the police officer.
For the security guard, you might just say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I thought it was legal, I promise I won’t do it again”. However, this is a gambit because you’ve kind of admitted your guilt and, as the old expression goes, “ignorance of the law is no excuse”.
You’ll want to appraise the situation before saying these words. If the security guard seems calm and more annoyed by your presence than upset, you should be fine. If he’s clearly looking for a confrontation, I wouldn’t give him anything to work with.
Running away probably won’t work here, unfortunately, because most security guards have the legal right to detain you until the real police arrive. If you do get caught escaping, you’ve violated our “one crime at a time” dictum and could be headed to jail.
The best option is simply to become aware of which dumpsters are patrolled and which days of the week are the best to visit them.
4. Caught By A Uniformed Police Officer
If it is a real police officer, I’m reminded of an old phrase I once heard as a child, either from my dad or some old TV program that goes something like, “The law consists of what the man with the badge says it does.”
Even if what you’re doing is legal, there’s a chance that saying the wrong thing to a police officer or doing the wrong thing when confronted by one could get you arrested anyway.
Usually when people hear the phrase “disorderly conduct”, they think of someone drinking in public. It’s actually more than that; it’s generally a blanket law that covers loitering, disturbing the peace, and a whole host of other things.
In this instance, your best bet is probably to go to the “I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was a crime to go through someone’s garbage.”
Police often show up to a dumpster if they’re patrolling the area and spot you or someone calls and reports you.
If you think someone has called, hoof it out of there. Avoiding the situation altogether is your best bet and there is always another dumpster and another night.
The Absolute Best Defense
That’s the best defense right there, the phrase “I’m sorry.” Most of the time, it will disarm the situation and unless you’ve found the one police officer in the world who loves doing paperwork, there’s a good chance they’ll let you go.
I use this in my personal life as well. When an angry person confronts me, I start off with a very sincere “I’m sorry” and, 99% of the time, it works because the last thing the other person is expecting is an immediate heartfelt apology.
That other 1%, though, is the problem. Generally, when this strategy does fail, it’s often because the other person is either so mad that they didn’t even hear what I said or they’re so upset that no apology would be good enough at that exact moment.
In the same way, you can use the strategies I’ve listed here perfectly, and 99% of the time, you’ll be home free. However, there’s always that 1% chance that, for reasons that have nothing to do with you, you could end up in court anyway.
As long as you’re polite to the officer, you aren’t likely to be arrested (depending on the local laws and if the business wants to press charges), but having your name in the “Police and Fire” section of the newspaper isn’t great, either.
Safety and Other Tips
We’ve looked at tips for avoiding confrontation, but here are a few other pieces of advice I’d like to give before I wrap up.
First, you’ll want to wear some heavy-duty gloves. You’re going through garbage and it’s possible that you could encounter a needle, some blood, or some other bit of medical or toxic waste that could be hazardous to your health.
They’ll also help you look the part if you’re wearing a reflective vest as I mentioned earlier because your preparation will make people think you’re just doing your job.
Second, make sure that you don’t leave any trash on the ground when you’re finished because littering will get you into trouble with the police and, as my mother taught me when I was a child, it’s also not very nice.
Leaving a dumpster a mess is a sure way to have it locked up in future. If I get to a dumpster after a another diver and find a mess I’ll usually clean it up to preserve the spot for future grabs and not to annoy any employees that have to clean it up in the morning.
You’ll also want to make sure the dumpster is shut when you’re done. A wild animal could go in looking for food and end up on the wrong side of the trash compactor if it’s left open.
Finally, be smart about it. If you think you’re about to be confronted or put into a dangerous situation, the best thing to do is just to leave before they get the chance. Never be afraid to just walk away. There will be other dumpsters.
Dumpster diving can be a lucrative enterprise and not just for people looking for a meal. As long as you do it safely and as legally as possible, it’s about as victimless a “crime” as possible. You’re making sure good things don’t go to waste.
I know I’ve said it five times already, but it bears repeating that politeness and common courtesy will get you far if you get caught. Have fun, stay safe, and good luck!