Dumpster diving: Is it illegal? What beginners need to know

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Quick question — what comes to mind when you hear the term “dumpster diving?” 

A sketchy stranger in the night, feeling down on their luck, scrounging around in desperation for someone’s grimy box of leftover French fries? 

Well, that’s one way to think of it. But in reality, dumpster diving can be a way to score premier goods and even make some great money — and those in the know aren’t always willing to share their secrets…

Much like the practice of dumpster diving itself, you’ve gotta be willing to do a little digging to get the good stuff. 

For me, it all started when I joined a social media group for dumpster divers, hoping to gain some insight for this article. 

As soon as I posted my query, however, the (very unexpected) response was a mob of angry dumpster divers, chastising me for daring to spill their secrets:

“We have to wait in line to get to the dumpsters now!”

“You are ruining this for the longtime divers!”

“Wonderful [Insert sarcasm emoji]!”

Fortunately, I was able to connect with two of the best divers out there, who shared their tips for successful dumpster diving:

What is dumpster diving?

The term “dumpster diving” has been around since the early 1980s, when Life Magazine coined the term in a piece about two guys rummaging for food in a trash bin. 

By its simplest definition, dumpster diving is the practice of obtaining unwanted items from dumpsters or other trash receptacles. That can include food, clothing, household items, electronics, and other practical and luxury items. Reasons people choose to dumpster dive include financial necessity and a desire to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle. 

While dumpster diving might not be for everyone, its appeal is more practical than ever:

For one, we waste a whopping 40% of the food produced in the United States each year, according to the FDA. That’s the equivalent of every person in the country throwing away 650 apples annually. 

The EPA reported that landfills received 11.3 million tons of textiles in 2018. That figure includes discarded clothing, furniture, carpets, tires, footwear, sheets, towels, and other nondurable goods (products with a lifetime of less than three years).

Pair all of this with the ability to make money — like this New York couple, who rakes in $3,000 in additional income each month through dumpster diving — and the thought of diving into a heap of trash sounds a lot more appealing.

Is dumpster diving illegal?

No, dumpster diving is not illegal, according to federal law. Once something is discarded and considered trash, it becomes fair game and is not subject to fourth amendment protection — that’s the amendment that protects you and your belongings from unreasonable searches and seizures. 

But not so fast. Even though you’re in the clear as far as Uncle Sam and the 50 states are concerned, certain counties, towns and cities still have laws about dumpster diving, so you should check those out before you plunge into the nearest trash receptacle. 

You can find local codes and ordinances by searching the name of your county or municipality followed by the word “ordinances.” You can also check with your local public library or clerk of court

Keep in mind that individual businesses might have signs posted to keep the public away from their dumpsters. In these cases, you can get yourself in a heap of trouble even if you’re just throwing something away – it happened to me once, at an Eagles Beachwear store next to a rental beach house, where I was innocently trying to discard a bag of garbage. 

A guy came barreling out, demanding I take my personal trash elsewhere. It was a harrowing lesson I haven’t forgotten. 

A woman named Tiffany, better known as @dumpsterdivingmama on TikTok, shares tips for dumpster diving with her 2 million+ followers. She confirms you have to be careful choosing where to dumpster dive.

“You can't raid dumpsters that have either a ‘No Trespassing’ sign or a ‘Private Property’ sign displayed on them,” she says. “Other than that, you're good to go!” 

Maricela, a single mother of four who shares her dumpster diving adventures on TikTok under the name @sweetthriftlife, suggests anyone who is curious about dumpster diving call the non-emergency phone number in their area to verify it is legal.

What is an example of dumpster diving?

In theory, dumpster diving is fairly simple: First you make sure it’s legal in your area, pick a dumpster that doesn’t have any signs telling you not to be there — then get to diving. 

You can check out this YouTube video from a “Dumpster Diving Momma of 2” located in Pennsylvania, who regularly donates her findings to those in need:

These thrilled ladies got a “haul” from a local Dollar General dumpster filled with “food, drinks and more” during a thunderstorm.

Why do stores throw away merchandise?

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Stores throwing away perfectly good stuff? So why does it happen, anyway? 

Well, believe it or not, sometimes it’s more cost-effective to throw items away than to inspect and reshelve them. In an interview with NPR, journalist Adria Vasil explains how returned items can actually cost a company more than they’re worth. 

According to Vasil, companies have to foot the bill for inspecting a product once you return it. So in some situations, it’s actually easier and cheaper just to trash the item than to actually put it back on shelves.

So what about groceries? Yes, some items in dumpsters are close to their sell-by date, but items are often tossed just because of defective packaging or overstocked shelves. 

Plenty of savvy dumpster divers have scored big — one Whole Foods diver was able to feed her entire community with discarded meat that was kept “refrigerated” in 33-degree winter weather. 

What are the best stores to dumpster dive at?

Think about all of your prized possessions — electronics, beauty products, clothing, whatever they might be. The stores where you’d find those products are great places to start your dumpster diving journey. 

As far as the best places to dumpster dive, online members of the dumpster diving community cite the following hot spots: 

  1. Bakeries and grocery stores
  2. Corporate retail store chains
  3. Pet stores
  4. Electronic stores 

“I honestly love Bath & Body Works because I like candles,” Tiffany says. “But if you're just starting out, I would suggest CVS or Five Below. They typically throw a lot of the good stuff into huge bags, and it’s easy to spot!”

Maricela suggests scoping out and checking dumpsters often until you learn their “dumping schedules,” That might involve stopping by on different days and times to learn when items are discarded. 

And what places should novice divers avoid? 

These might seem like no-brainers, but Redditers recommend staying away from thrift stores (they only throw out the bottom of the barrel), hospitals (no thanks) and restaurants. Stick to grocery stores and bakeries instead — one Redditer tried to dive at a restaurant and was covered in maggots. 

How do you dumpster dive safely?

If you’re reading this and feeling excited but a little apprehensive about dumpster diving, don’t worry. These are some tips to stay safe during your dumpster dive:

  1. Take a buddy with you, especially at night. Not only is there safety in numbers, but you might need an extra set of hands. 
  1. Have “getaway” transportation just in case. “I always park right in front of the dumpster that I’m checking,” Tiffany says. 
  1. Wear old clothing, and protect your skin as needed. While protective gloves might not be necessary — both Tiffany and Maricela say they don’t bother with gloves or “grabbing” tools — definitely don’t wear your nicest outfit. 
  1. Bring supplies to clean the items and yourself. Marcela suggests bringing along hand sanitizer.
  2. Check expiration/sell-by dates on any food items or pet food, and make sure none of the items have been recalled, Maricela says. 

Can you make money dumpster diving?

Yes! You can definitely make some money dumpster diving. While you can always keep your haul or donate items you don’t need, plenty of people make actual money diving. 

Marcela says she makes decent money for herself and her kids selling found items.

“I started selling items off the curb initially, making anywhere from $500 to $1000 doing just that,” she says. 

“On @sweetthriftlife, I sell items that I find to my followers and list part [of the haul] online and sell some stuff at my yard sales.”

She says she once found a Baby Jogger City Select double stroller and sold it for $300. She also regularly finds Wallflowers plug-in air freshener refills at Bath & Body Works, which she sells in bundles for up to $75. She also once found a stroller and carseat combo and sold it for $175. 

If you have items you want to unload (whether you got them from a dumpster or not), check out our post on how to thrift. You can also sell items on consignment, at pawn shops, and through online resale sites like Mercari, Thredup, or Poshmark.

Tiffany says when it comes to a dumpster diving side hustle, your “business overhead” is quite low. 

“It's all profit,” she says. “Besides gas and time!”

How much time? It depends, Tiffany says, on how much you'd like to commit. 

“I usually dive while the kids are in school, so maybe three or four hours at a time,” she shares. “And how many days I go really depends on what all I have going on that week. Sometimes two days, sometimes every day!”

Dumpster diving tips

Here are a few tips that will help you score exactly what you’re looking for: 

Dumpster diving for food

Here are a few food-diving tips from Tiffany:

  • Panera Bread (and other similar bakeries) throw out a lot of still-tasty baked goods daily. 
  • Low-cost grocery store chain Aldi is a good option for finding food.
  • CVS is a good place to find packaged snacks. 

Dumpster diving for electronics

Best Buy isn’t a place to dumpster dive because they use trash compactors, Tiffany says, but she suggests trying places like Burlington Coat Factory and Five Below, which both carry some electronic items. 

Dumpster diving for scrap metal

The best way to get valuable scrap metal, including scrap gold? Wait until stores renovate, Tiffany says. “They usually have a big roller dumpster that they dump old scrap parts into.” 

Dumpster diving for toys

Again, Tiffany recommends Burlington and Five Below to find toys for the kids.

“I don’t even remember all the stuff I’ve found,” she says. “Everything from baby dolls, trucks, play foods, and Legos to play makeup, art kits, and bathtub toys.”

Bottom line: Is it worth it to dumpster dive?

Dumpster diving is absolutely worth it if you want to save — or even make — some money. Of course, you have to be willing to put in the effort and potentially get a little dirty. 

A lot of businesses throw away perfectly good food and merchandise, and dumpster diving is an economical and sustainable way to ensure it doesn’t go to waste.

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What is dumpster diving?

By its simplest definition, dumpster diving is the practice of obtaining unwanted items from dumpsters or other trash receptacles. That can include food, clothing, household items, electronics, and other practical and luxury items. Reasons people choose to dumpster dive include financial necessity and a desire to live a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.

Is dumpster diving illegal?

No, dumpster diving is not illegal, according to federal law. Once something is discarded and considered trash, it becomes fair game and is not subject to fourth amendment protection — that’s the amendment that protects you and your belongings from unreasonable searches and seizures.

What is an example of dumpster diving?

In theory, dumpster diving is fairly simple: First you make sure it’s legal in your area, pick a dumpster that doesn’t have any signs telling you not to be there — then get to diving.

What are the best stores to dumpster dive at?

As far as the best places to dumpster dive, online members of the dumpster diving community cite the following hot spots: bakeries and grocery stores, corporate retail store chains, pet stores, and electronic stores.

Can you make money dumpster diving?

Yes! You can definitely make some money dumpster diving. While you can always keep your haul or donate items you don’t need, plenty of people make actual money diving.

Is it worth it to dumpster dive?

Dumpster diving is absolutely worth it if you want to save — or even make — some money. Of course, you have to be willing to put in the effort and potentially get a little dirty.

Denise K. James is an independent writer and editor based in the Southeast. She holds a master's degree in English from the College of Charleston and has lived in multiple Southern cities, with Atlanta as her current home. Denise has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Homelight, Celebrate Hilton Head, Grand Strand Magazine, Birmingham Lifestyle, Edible Northeast Florida, Southern Flavor and many others. In her spare time, Denise enjoys exploring Atlanta, taking road trips, watching the birds and squirrels out of her window and reading great works of literature.

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