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Is it against the law to pick through and take from other people’s curbside recycling and trash bins?

Amanda Lisk

It is illegal to tamper with a resident’s trash/recycling if it is not put out for pick up and still located on their private property. However, once trash or recycling is placed out on the curb or a designated location for pick up by trash collectors, it is considered discarded by the property owner and becomes public domain.

“By placing it out for pick up, they are relinquishing their rights to it,” said Wilmington City Police Officer, Frank Childers.

In 1988, the US Supreme Court actually ruled trash-picking to be legal.

CALIFORNIA v. GREENWOOD, 486 U.S. 35 (1988) stemmed from a 1984 investigation in Laguna Beach, Calif. Investigators suspected Billy Greenwood of drug trafficking and found evidence in his curbside trash. The evidence enabled them to obtain a full search warrant of his house which lead to his arrest, but charges were dropped because of the unwarranted search of his trash citing fourth amendment rights.

In California v. Greenwood, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of investigators and held that “the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home.”

To read more about that case, click here.

So, yes, it is legal to pick through and take from other people’s curbside recycling and trash bins.

For details about Wilmington trash and recycling collection, click here.


Where can I recycle if I live in an apartment complex with no collection bin?

What percentage of Wilmington and New Hanover County’s recycling goes into the landfill versus actually being recycled?


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