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How to Dumpster Dive in L.A.

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Last week in France, three people were found guilty of theft after they were caught collecting "expired foodstuffs discarded by a supermarket." While the contents of the trio's take was unique -- they collected seven 100-liter bags worth of food, some containing high-end items like foie gras -- they were essentially convicted for dumpster diving.

But that happened way over in France. What are the ramifications for dumpster diving here in L.A.?

It's important to detail why anyone would want to root through dumpsters looking for edible food. (Note: I am only talking about food-based dumpster diving here, although it's probably worth noting that if you expanded your search to include office equipment and electronics, you could theoretically bring in $250,000 a year like this guy.) Not only do you have to battle for territory with rats and other vermin, you have to do so in a cloud of stench that would quash any appetite, and hope that whatever foods you get aren't contaminated.

First, it's an act of protest against our disposable culture. As I've detailed over and over in this space, the U.S. throws out roughly 40 percent of its edible food, and the country's level of waste is not unique. Around the world, 1.3 billion tons of food a year goes right into the trash.

Second, if you're doing it correctly, it's not that unsafe. As is the case with nearly any pursuit, the key is to dress the part. That means wearing rubber gloves, kneepads, headlamps, boots, and then scrubbing yourself down right after. It also means knowing where to find the best dumpsters, either by consulting crowd-sourced maps or by attending neighborhood meet-up groups that will point newbies in the right direction.

All that said, is it legal? The answer is "sort of."

The 1988 Supreme Court case California v. Greenwood dealt with whether or not cops can rifle through someone's trash looking for evidence to use against them in a case. They can, said enough of the Supreme Court justices, their reasoning being that as soon as an item is thrown in the trash for collection, that item becomes part of the public domain. Because of that ruling, dumpster diving is technically legal. (Except in a few cities that have ordinances strictly forbidding this practice, but none are in California.)

The issue gets dicey in certain circumstances, for instance, when businesses lock their dumpsters behind gates and post "No Trespassing" signs. Companies -- multi-million dollar corporations and mom-and-pop stores alike -- do this for a variety of reasons, ranging from the legal (they don't want to be held responsible if someone injures themselves in the dumpster) to the aesthetic (having a crew of soiled divers rooting through their trash isn't ideal for business). Because of those signs, owners can complain to the cops, who will swing by and write out tickets or citations for illegal trespassing.

This, in fact, is a big reason people don't even consider dumpster diving. But, as noted dumpster diver Rob Greenfield states, that fear is somewhat misplaced:

I've learned from experience that this fear is mostly unwarranted but I've also learned this from talking to people and scouring the web. I would guess that millions of people have dumpster dove for food in America yet I have turned up only a few cases of arrest and they all were dismissed after the public pressured the courts to do so.

As an attempt to cut down on that fear, Greenfield has a standing offer to pay the fine of anyone ticketed for dumpster diving. If you're thinking about taking Greenfield up on this offer, there are certain exclusions you should be aware of, such as no cutting open locks or climbing over walls. But if the risk of a simple fine is keeping you from doing it, well, rid that worry from your head, and get to diving.

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