4 Ways to Get in Trouble Through Recycling

If you dumpster dive on private property, it may be considered trespassing, so look for cans in a public place. View Apart/Shutterstock

When I was little, my father used to pull over on the side of the road when he saw something he liked in someone's trash. A lamp, a table, even a couch was fair game. I grew up thinking that the side of the road was just another store. These days, my kids cower in embarrassment if I pull over to grab something from someone else's trash. But as it turns out, I'm in good company.

Curb and dumpster diving have experienced a major comeback in recent years, popularized as a way to recycle. In fact, there's an entire dumpster diving culture. There are online community groups in which people post diving tips and tell you the best places and times to pick up certain items. But were you aware that in some places, dumpster diving is illegal?

These recycling practices are not as innocuous as you might think.

1. Dumpster diving. When the dumpster is behind a fence or in a locked container, dumpster diving is considered trespassing. If you're going to attempt your own dumpster dive, be sure the can is in a public place. Also, you can be cited for littering if you leave the surrounding area a mess, so make sure to leave the area cleaner than when you found it. Dumpster diving can be a problem for municipalities that are expected to recycle a certain percentage of their waste and can't meet their quota because private residents are taking the trash, so be sure to check your city or county's guidelines.

Bottles to be recycled
It's illegal to return a bottle for deposit if it was purchased in another state. seen0001/Shutterstock

2. Collecting bottle deposits. Did you know it's illegal to return a bottle for deposit if it was purchased in another state? That's because you never paid the deposit in the first place. Recycling one bottle like that, say, on vacation, won't get you into trouble, but trying to cross state lines with thousands of bottles purchased elsewhere to recycle is another story. As a matter of fact, this past summer, the leaders of a California smuggling ring were arrested for using a storage facility to smuggle in thousands of dollars' worth of aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

3. Taking items from behind a grocery store. Think your local grocery store put those plastic crates behind their store to throw out? Think again. Plastic crates are the object of many crafty recycler's eye, since they are worth between $3 and $10 apiece. Taking one might seem innocuous, and an easy way to reuse what seems like trash, but you may not be the only one. Trader Joe's recently reported a loss of $2.5 million dollars over the course of 18 months from crate-stealing thieves. Moral of the story? Better ask inside first if you're planning to pick something up from behind a store.

4. Not actually recycling when you say you will. Just this past month, the owner of EnviroGreen, Inc. was arrested for multi-million dollar recycling fraud. The indictment states that through both his past company and his current one, he "caused thousands of tons of electronic scrap and other potentially hazardous materials to be landfilled, resold to customers that shipped the materials overseas or stockpiled in his facilities," when he had assured customers that their recyclables were disassembled and recycled in an environmentally sound manner.

Also, though it may not get you arrested, certain municipalities only accept certain recyclables. Be sure to check your city's list to be sure you're not putting in the wrong items, and never put potentially hazardous waste in the recycling bin.