Many countries have no laws against taking trash for one's personal use, although areas such as Germany, the United Kingdom and parts of the United States may have regulations which prohibit dumpster diving. In addition, even though a location may not explicitly forbid taking trash, many places have laws against trespassing, prowling and vandalism which can be used against dumpster divers by aggressive police and prosecutors.
In the United Kingdom, discarded property is still considered to legally belong to the individual or organization which disposed of it, and dumpster divers may be prosecuted under the Theft Act of 1968 in England or Wales for "Theft by Finding," or for common-law theft in Scotland.<ref name="wikipedia"> "Dumpster Diving." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumpster_diving#Legal_status Retrieved 22 July 2011.</ref>
In England, the police may also employ Section 1 of PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) to stop and search people who they have "reasonable grounds" to believe may be carrying, among other things, stolen goods or equipment to break and enter. In practice, this means that people carrying a bag at night who are deemed to look "suspicious" may be stopped and harassed by law enforcement. In these circumstances, the police have the power to compel a person to remain, to take their name and address and to search their bags and clothes.<ref>One skipper chose not to cooperate and had a very difficult time of it until admitting under threat of arrest that the goods were skipped; the police took their information and let them leave without charge. In any future Section 1 PACE S&S, they have chosen to reveal immediately that the goods are skipped and hope to avoid giving their details; YMMV.</ref> In the course of a personal search, however, a constable must inform the searched party of: their name and the station they are attached to; the object of the proposed search; their grounds for making the search; and the fact that the subject is entitled to a copy of the search. Failure to do so renders the search illegal.<ref> "Legal Advice for Activists." Free Beagles. http://www.freebeagles.org/articles/Legal_Booklet_4/lb4-6.html Retrieved 22 July 2011.</ref>
Trespassing in the course of diving, unless done with aggravated intent or upon the grounds of the Ministry of Defense, is considered a civil wrong in England and Wales.<ref name="emoware"> "Dumpster Diving Laws." Emoware. http://www.emoware.org/dumpster-diving/dumpster-diving-laws.asp Retrieved 22 July 2011.</ref>
The Supreme Court Case California v. Greenwood has established that by discarding possessions, private citizens of the US relinquish their rights to the property, and have no common law expectation of privacy regarding them. However, the same does not always hold true for corporations, and in 1983, a Minnesota information diver was successfully sued in the Tennant Company v. Advance Machine Company for their recovery of customer lists and was forced to pay $500,000 in damages.<ref name="wikipedia" /> Individual cities may also establish ordinances banning scavenging, salvage or rummaging through trash.
In the United States, the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from warrant-less personal searches unless the police have reasonable cause to suspect they are armed and in the commission of a crime, in which case they may stop and frisk them for weapons as ruled in Terry v. Ohio. Individuals may be compelled to state their name, address and birth date, but otherwise reserve their right to remain silent.
In Canada, discarded materials do not appear to be considered private property. The Trespass to Property Act grants property owners and security guards employed upon their behalf to permanently ban unwanted persons from their property, although they must serve the individual in question with a notice prohibiting entry.<ref> "Dumpster Diving." Wired. Issue 5.09. September 1997. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.09/es_dumpster.html Retrieved 22 July 2011.</ref>
In Germany, discarded property is still considered to legally belong to the individual or organization which disposed of it.<ref name="wikipedia" />
In Sweden, discarded property is still considered to legally belong to the individual or organization which disposed of it.<ref name="wikipedia" />
Dumpster diving is not illegal. Though people might tell you it is, because they just assume so. And you can't just shut them up by quoting the law, because the law is not specific. However, precedents have consistently considered that trash has no owner, which according to Article 713 of the Civil Code, default to be owned by the local administration (fr: Commune).
Notable Cases of Prosecution
- In Belgium, a dumpster diver and eco-activist known as Ollie was prosecuted for taking food from local dumpsters. His trial provoked numerous protests.
- Activists in Reno (Nevada, US) have championed a campaign to "keep laws regarding dumpster diving in Reno off the books"in the face of citizen requests for laws prohibiting salvage. A short film, Dumpster Wars: Reno's Trash Politics has been made chronicling their struggle.
- Rob Greenfield - "If you get arrested for dumpster diving for food I'll cover the costs, bring national media attention to the issue, and if I'm available come hang out with you. Dumpster dive worry free knowing that I've got your back in a time of need!". http://robgreenfield.tv/arrestedfordumpsterdiving/
- Dumpster Diving Laws: A summary of laws in various countries
- FAQ: What to do if a Cop Stops You: An article from an American diving blog which addresses how to navigate police encounters
- Security Culture: A Handbook for Activists: A American zine which outlines the basics of security culture, and which also outlines rights you have when approached by police in the USA.