Monday, February 23, 2009

on dumpster diving

For a while now I've been working under the premise that dumpster diving is illegal.  Thus, taking perfectly good loaves of bread or boxes of brownies from local food outlet dumpsters or toys and artifacts from thrift store dumpsters I saw as an act of "civil disobedience."
I somehow contrived to justify theft in the name of "being a good steward of the earth."  Good food or any useful product should not end up in a land fill.  And so I counted it almost a duty to redeem these things from the trash.

Belinda and I went adventuring on Saturday, and ended up with a loot of toys from the dumpster at the local Goodwill.  We subsequently cleaned them and dropped them off for friends who are expecting their first child.  It was only Belinda's second dumpster diving experience (the first was for food), and her conscience got the best of us.

Aside: it's remarkable how much we justify our sin in our own minds.  We always find some justification, else we would either cease to sin at all or drive ourselves mad.  Adding a second conscience, a second mouth that speaks from a heart full of the Holy Spirit, makes justifying sin all the more difficult.  That's why accountability is so key to our growth and discipleship.  Romance forces accountability in some ways that are different than other close relationships.  As you open up your hearts to one another and experience life in increasingly closer relationship the darknesses of those individual hearts are exposed, particularly when they are in different places for each of you.  I think God designed marriage as the ultimate accountability relationship.  I'm also confident that married people should have accountability partners outside of their spouses (and of the same sex), but that's an aside to an aside.

Where was I?  Oh, yes.  Belinda's conscience was bothering her about the legality of our deeds.

And so I began to seriously ponder the way I had been acting.  God clearly commands us to obey our authorities, specifically in light of his sovereignty over their reign (Rom. 13:1-5, Prov. 21:1).  God does at times require disobedience to the law, when the law of the government contradicts the law or authority of God (Josh. 2, Acts 4:18-20). 

So, perhaps playing robinhood for the environment can be justified by saying that God has commanded us to be stewards of the Earth, and allowing good things to take up space in landfills is direct disobedience.  But the more I think about it, the weaker that argument seems.  Taking a few toys from a dumpster ever few weeks is not really changing the size of our landfills.  It seems more like petty theft with a "stick-it-to-the-man" flair.  As a well educated adult with some power over words, I think if my real concern was for providing those in need with useful things that others had discarded, I would write letters or petitions to the management of the stores which are filling landfills, perhaps proposing alternatives for edible or reusable products other than simply creating more garbage.  It would take more work and probably be a lot less fun, which I think is very telling in terms of my true motivations.

So, if I discover that dumpster diving is truly illegal as I have supposed, I think I may have to stop.  If anyone would like to convince me otherwise, I would be grateful.

This is where things get interesting.  I decided to do a bit of research into the subject, and this is one of the first articles I found.  While I don't agree with the motivation of the authors, the second certainly has a funny last name.  Here's the relevant excerpt:


Dumpster diving is the deliberate art of gleaning perfectly usable items from commercial and residential dumpsters. It is legal in most areas as long as there are no signs posted against trespassing. To be sure, check your city ordinances, or just call the police department.

I have subsequently sent form emails to the local governing authorities, and await a response.  Perhaps I should have waited to post this until I hear back, but I wanted to get this out of my fingers.  And a reply will give me an excuse to post again.  You know, keeping up the average and all that (currently 1.7 posts/day for the last 30 days).


Tim said...

Well...I think the main reason why it is illegal (yes, I think it is probably illegal) is because lot of times, dumpster divers don't take care to leave things in order. That is also why people install locks on some trash bins -- because they don't want strangers to open it up and throw their things into disarray. I mean -- do you want people looking through your trash? Isn't that a violation of your personal space? Especially if you are talking about the possibility that they will leave a mess behind.

Commercial establishment also have another concern they have -- their information security policy among others.

Now, I think that there is possibly stronger legal footing for curbsiding than dumpster diving. I'm interested in what the town has to say. But generally if I put something on the curbside I don't want, I'm happier if someone will take it and put it to better use than if it winds up in the landfill. I can really say that honestly, and I think lot of other people can too. It doesn't have the "stick it" sort of attitude. Lot of times people only put things on the curbside on garbage day if they really don't want to deal with something anymore and would be all the happier if someone took it off their hand. It is also less an invasion of privacy since you can clearly see what is on the curbside.

Another alternative that protects the landfill, is perfectly legal, and actually has potential to help others is...go to garage sales! Might cost you something, but at least you are helping someone else.

Jon S said...

I have to admit, I never really thought that dumpster diving as potentially illegal (granted I've only ever done it with the Perkins dumpsters). The best way to resolve this issue is probably to wait to hear back from officials. However, dumpster diving appears to be perfectly legal on a national level. California vs. Greenwood (1988) (check wikipedia) concluded that garbage put out for collection is no longer private. (The exact court case ruled that police can search trash and not violate the fourth ammendment) Sidewalks are municipal property and thus there is no right to privacy. I think commercial dumpsters are also municipal property. I also tried to search New York State and Monroe County laws but was unable to find anything. I would conclude that it is probably legal providing that you don't have to trespass to do it.

jk said...

option a) dumpster dive
pros: free, noncommittal, fun
cons: illegal if trespassing or stealing (varies by location)

option b) ask permission to dumpster dive
pros: free, minimum commitment, fun but with overhead work
cons: risks associated with voiding the excuse of 'i didn't know any better'

option c) write letters to companies
pros: free, minimum commitment, could have a huge impact
cons: boring/ tedious

option d) talk to landfill/ trash company
pros: free, abundance of resources
cons: risk of rejection, reduced probability of finding useful junk

option e) start a competing trash removal service
pros: vast access to garbage from choice companies
cons: large time/ money/ effort investment