Dumpster Diving?

By: Lawn Griffiths

Occasionally, I have witnessed a Tempe police officer confronting a Dumpster diver collecting aluminum cans, which these days can fetch a nifty $1 a pound if you know where to take them to sell. How absurd that cops can —  or would — intercede . That’s especially true these days when poverty is ever more rampant, when unemployment is obscene and when people need to be allowed to carry out what humans have been doing since the beginning of time – talking ownership of what the wasteful waste.

So first off, if Tempe police are harassing aluminum can collectors, they should stop it immediately – and help folks make a living. Never mind they might get cut on a jar or whatever.  I suspect they, like the ragpickers around the world, know the risks and adjust appropriately.

I penned a “Beyond Belief” blog for the East Valley Tribune on Feb. 1, 2007, after the Scottsdale City Council had the audacity to vote 4-2 to make Dumpster diving illegal.  I noted it showed how “such an upscale community speaks volumes of its seeming callousness to poverty.”  I further noted that “America is the ultimate throwaway society.  The wealth that goes into garbage cans and, by the tons, into Dumpsters is obscene.  It is just too easy to throw furniture, working appliances, baby strollers, clothing, utensils, toys, books and half of Grandma’s home or apartment furnishings into the Dumpster behind her residence. In a smart and caring society, all this stuff would be thoughtfully sorted and looked at for worth and recycle value.”

On any Saturday, one could drive through alleys of housing developments and apartment complexes in Tempe and pile up a pickup with stuff left beside or inside of Dumpsters. Some of it could be sold at garage sales or donated to Goodwill.

I don’t know, but I suspect, the Tempe City Council one time, in the spirit of well-meaning public policy, made strangers pulling useful, valuable, recyclable items from Dumpsters and garbage bins illegal.  It is just the kind of  Nanny State law-making  we are so accustomed to seeing.  I know, you’re going to say Dumpster diving compromises people’s documents, papers that were recklessly thrown into the garbage.  I say, “Tosser, beware.”  Smart people shred anything close to being sensitive.  But the truth is, I am certain, those poring through Dumpsters are mostly after aluminum cans to sell – while some are in quest of stuff that can be used again or sold.   We have heard it said that Dumpster divers serve a public safety function in that they have discovered bodies, abandoned stolen goods, dangerous materials and dumped purses minus money. In my 2007 blog, I suggested, “Government and law enforcement are obsessed with security and call on the public to be their eyes and be on the lookout for suspicious activity.”

In the end, those things salvaged mean less having to be hauled to the landfill and things like aluminum and cardboard can be recycled – a positive thing for the environment.

Those searching Dumpsters can be the last – and only eyes – that truly can spot strange things inside a Dumpster. Certainly, the city’s field services garbage truck drivers see very little detail as their machines hoist Dumpsters in the air and empty their contents in a blur

In the sanitized, copacetic world that we think we must have, we place too much emphasis on “order” and not on humanity. I found a web site that  asks, “What would Jesus say about Dumpster diving. I think he would hold weekly Dumpster-diving parties…. He would be right there inside the Dumpster with everyone else…exclaiming words of joy when he finds a sealed box of bread or a bright shining apple. He would take the food and feed those in the neighborhood…and then go fight for better processes when it comes to food waste…”

I suggested four years ago and do again, “It should not be a crime to search the public recesses of this planet for what the ‘haves have had’ and now no longer want… It should never be a crime to take what others don’t want. After all, one man’s junk can be another person’s treasure.

Dumpster diving and reclaiming useful “waste” should never be a crime.


  1. Rich Bank says:

    Right on Lawn. Our Government has evolved into making rules far beyond the intent of the Founders. This is why we need C.R.O.C. ( Citizens Regulatory Oversight Committee ) to task this committee’s focus on taking some torque off of the regulatory screw. Pun intended!

    The over regulatory posture we have evolved into is counterproductive to our right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This posture constricts our private enterprise, private property and private lives. Our government was originally created to expand our liberties and rights by getting government out of the way of our creativity and innovation as much as possible

  2. Sorry, but I have to disagree a bit here. It’s my trash, or your trash, or whomever placed it there. “Tosser Beware?” Wow, that’s a massive affront to property rights. That’s akin to saying property owner beware when someone breaks into your home and gets injured.

    I have to think that Jesus would also not hold dumpster diving parties. I think he would respect the owners of property and also respectfully request if he could go through someone’s trash to determine if there was something that may be recyclable rather than “stealing”, because honestly, that’s all this really is. I don’t know if you have ever been to the landfill, but it’s absolutely illegal to leave that location with items you did not bring in without the permission of the landfill owners; what’s the difference in this scenario?

    If I place something in the trash, I wish it to be there for a reason; not so that someone/anyone can go through it at their leisure to determine that I am being wasteful, negligent, eco-unfriendly, unhelpful to the downtrodden, etc. Until I place a sign on it saying “Free for all, please look at my trash anytime you want” I would expect it to maintain the same protection as I would desire in my home or on all of my property.

    In all reality, I would respect someone along these lines that began a business, notified homeowners, made the proper requests to do as they desired, and provided a level of trust so that I knew just not anyone was doing what you suggest.

    Just my 2cents: I’m sure it won’t be popular at all.

    • Kevin, in all due respect, I believe once items are placed in a Dumpster in a public area, especially a rubber or steel container in an alley, shared with and available to, all the area residents, the items place in them are in the public doman until the city hauls it off. One relinguishes “ownership” of whatever is put into the public waste container. There are no property rights to it.
      The issue here is whether, what I regard as reckless wastefulness, necessarily needs to be a given a pass because so-and-so chose to throw away perfectly valuable and reusable things. Clearly, many people pitch clothing, furniture, and still within-use dated food because it is easier when they move out, rather than take it to a food pantry or a thriftstore. It is easy and lazy. Should their profligate practices be ignored? Should rescuing them and finding a home for them be permitted?
      Government, as always, can build a case for order, control, rules and “protection” of the citizenry from every kind of “danger” they can dream up.
      Bottom line is that until the city hauls it off in their efficient, smashing and compacting monster machines, the stuff is there for the taking by anyone who can use it or profit from it. And again, we are not talking about records or documents. Anyone with a brain shreds what might be sensitive.

    • Once you discard an item, you no longer own it. In Canada, the Supreme Court has confirmed that discarded items are not the property of the person who wasted it (so police can search it without a warrant, for instance). It is public property, and/or free to be claimed by someone willing to take it onto their own property.

  3. I love when commentary starts “with all due respect” because quite often it includes something meant to be thrown out as heated, debatable, offensive, etc, but is being softened by kind opening words.

    Regardless of what you, or anyone else believes or thinks, most, if not probably 99% of all trash receptacles are private property; even those located at apartment buildings, commercial buildings, etc, that appear to be “public use or access”. The only true “public” trash receptacles are located on public streets, at parks, etc and are maintained at the expense of the city/state, etc.

    Shared/available is a very loose term. No one has the right to use my trashcans even though they are located in front of my home, and even when they are placed on the public street they are not “public use” or “public access.”

    Now, you are correct in indicating that placing refuse into a “public” waste container would logically mean that you fully relinquish any say whatsoever in what occurs to that waste.

    Your last 2 paragraphs just baffle me. I’m not sure how to properly respond. I can see the leanings that you encompass, but I still have to assume that there are levels of common sense that rule us all.

    Why should it ever be up to anyone but me as to how I would like to deal with my own personal property and in particular my personal refuse (I was going to type personal waste, but that makes it sound like a bodily function…. an interesting sidebar to this discussion in and of itself)? If I wish to dispose of it and don’t wish for anyone else to lay claim to it, I believe that is my own right and should be respected. Now, you may assume I am some crazy right-wing nutjob that refuses to have any green based ego logic. However, that is completely inaccurate. I am an Eagle Scout and am the father of a newly awarded Eagle Scout. If you are familiar with the teachings of this organization, you will know that conservation is a very strong basis of what is taught. I am absolutely into recycling of usable materials. I definitely try to sell things at garage sales to those who can use them when I no longer see them as functional or valuable. I even offer things at no cost if I know that someone may be interested rather than trying to sell something that has no apparent monetary value. Yet, I fully disagree with the premise that once something is in my garbage it may be reviewed by persons, entities or authorities unknown with the sole purpose of determining what I may have placed there that is valuable and/or usable.

    I think what you speak of is more about cultural education and pride than accusatory statements of wanton waste and neglect. Isn’t it more important to discuss with our neighbors these types of concepts? I surely don’t want vagrants and/or people either from my neighborhood or more specifically not from my neighborhood rifling through my waste. Beyond the property rights that you already disagree with, there is a massive security issue that is being completely looked over, both residentially and commercially. Commercial waste bins, bins in alleyways, etc. attracting “disposal review professionals” increases the possibilities of so many possibilities of crime and/or injury. Yes government can do all the things you indicated, for good and for bad, but I prefer not to rely on the government as I am sure you can surmise. I would rather rely on my neighbors, friends, family, and the community to have morals, ethics and consistent “good” practices and desires so that discussions like this are just completely moot because at that point, only true waste would be in the waste bin and everyone would know why it was there and not question the value or usability of anything within it.

  4. I can understand that a property owner may feel he or she has a right to expect that items placed within their trash receptacle be unmolested.

    I expect in return that any such property owner can understand that someone else may feel it is an unnecessary right, and perhaps no right at all.

    I personally view this issue differently based on where the trash is found:
    1. A home owner’s garbage can, the sort which is left on the curb once a week. This I support leaving alone because someone could be forgiven for feeling like it is their trash can (even if it may be city owned) and I don’t want to disrespect that.
    2. An apartment communal dumpster/bin. I have no problem with searching one of these as no resident can reasonably hold the view that it is their receptacle I may be violating. There is no “user” to disrespect.

  5. Concerned Resident says:

    Lawn, trash is definitely not public property, in the city of Tempe, it becomes the property of the city as soon as it is placed in the receptacle and it is unlawful to remove it without the authorization of the public works director (Tempe City Code 28-59).

    Kevin, I couldn’t agree with you more. Items placed in trash receptacles are done so because the person with ownership interest in the item and 100% of the corresponding property rights in it, has decided that is where it belongs.

    It is important to realize that not only are there major aesthetic appeal issues in residential areas with regard to dumpster diving but there are also major identity theft issues with people going through trash cans, recycling bins, and community dumpsters, residential and commercial alike.

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