When Recycling Gets You Arrested Instead of Rewarded

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You make every effort you can to recycle, but did you know recycling can get you in trouble with the law — even arrested in some communities — if you aren’t familiar with your local and state ordinances?

Here are three examples of recycling laws you may be breaking without even realizing it:

Collecting Deposits

Ten states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont — have bottle deposit laws to encourage recycling. In these states, when you purchase a bottle, or in some cases an aluminum can, you pay a deposit of 5 to 15 cents; if you return the bottle, you receive your deposit back.

You can get in trouble, though, for trying to collect deposits on bottles purchased in other states since you never paid the deposit. Four states — Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont — enforce monetary penalties, while California and Michigan not only enforce the fine but also make it a crime with possible prison time.

Don’t worry if you accidentally return a bottle you picked up while on vacation. Usually, law enforcement is only concerned when you are obviously trying to make a profit by returning thousands of bottles at once.

Dumpster Diving

It’s actually legal to dumpster dive unless your city has a law against the practice. The dumpster or trash bin has to be in a public place, you can’t climb a fence or pick a lock to get to the trash, and you have to honor signs posted on the wall or sprayed on the can that read “no trespassing.” If you fail to do any of these things, you could be cited for trespassing or even theft.

Also, you can be cited for littering if you make a mess, so make sure to leave the area cleaner than it was before you arrived.

Some communities are looking at possibly issuing citations, though, if you are rummaging through the trash for recyclables. That’s because they are required to recycle a percentage of their waste, and if you get to it first, it makes it harder for them to meet that percentage. Check your local laws before dumpster diving for recyclables.

Picking Up Eyesores

Mina Karini thought she was helping the environment by taking the recycling bins with “Take Me” stickers and turning them into flower pots. She never got a chance to actually recycle the discarded bins, though, because the stickers weren’t actually an invitation to take the bins; they marked old recycling bins that the city of Washington, D.C., was in the process of replacing with new ones. Karini and a friend were arrested for theft.

Similarly, companies have been cracking down on people who steal the plastic crates often found behind fast food restaurants and grocery stores. These crates may look like unwanted containers, but most retailers reuse or recycle the crates, so taking them without permission is theft. If you see crates that appear unwanted, even if they are near a trash can, ask the owner of the restaurant before grabbing them and going.

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Teresa Bitler

When she moved to an unincorporated area that didn’t recycle, freelance writer Teresa Bitler implemented her own home recycling program. She lives on the outskirts of Phoenix, near the San Tan Mountains.