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Let's say I invented a machine which turns trash into money. Can I legally:

  • Take the trash from a trash deposit container outside my neighbor's house, without asking permission?
  • Go to the landfill, load some trash into my truck, then drive away?

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I'll assume a real question here and not one about a fan film on YouTube.

Take the trash from a trash deposit container outside my neighbor's house, without asking permission?

All depends on the locality; and sometimes the law is not settled, either. Some cities have passed laws that deem trash to be city's property as soon as it is placed in a city-supplied trash bin, because the city (or a private contractor) hauls to and owns the landfill. Other cities claim legal ownership of recyclables when placed on the curb, for the obvious reason that they are worth money. The law can be not settled if objects are in alleys and not in trash bins, or simply placed on the curb.

For the sake of discussion, there are numerous examples of cities looking the other way with scavengers and pickers; it all depends on the location and the enforcement. (And, there are examples of the police being able to legally pull evidence from trash; but that's not the question here.)

Go to the landfill, load some trash into my truck, then drive away?

Think about it: you're obviously not going to be able to do this in a location with a managed landfill with employees that check you in and take your tipping fee. If it's a private trash contractor, it's private property; for a city, it's probably against the contract you signed when you paid to dump and probably against city law to salvage from the landfill, for liability reasons. (That doesn't mean the employees at the landfill can't salvage themselves; that's up to them.)

But like anything, at an unmanaged landfill in a rural area, you could probably get away with it.

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    In Germany, some cities declared trash to be their property, because some people examined orderly piles of trash, extracting things of value, and critically, leaving an absolute mess behind. So if you take something out of my nice pile of trash, and leave a nice pile of trash behind, it's legally theft but nobody minds and nobody cares. If you spread my pile of trash along the street and take one item, they will charge you with theft.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 12, 2023 at 18:57
  • What about personal information? I get that I've thrown my mail into a trash can, so I've set myself up for anything to happen, but hear me out: I could start a company that buys trash from local landfills. They have the right to sell it, right? Because the original owner through it away. My company picks through the trash to find any sort of personal information like phone numbers, bank statements, etc. Then my company cleans up the data and sells it to whoever wants it. We don't steal identities, but we might facilitate it. Shouldn't the trash be off limits for this purpose?
    – Anthony
    Jan 4 at 3:59

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