Sunday, July 10, 2022

Is it OK to retrieve discarded plants from a dumpster?

There are dozens of gardening groups on Facebook. A reader we’re calling Violet belongs to several. On one, Violet recently read a post from a member that recounted an experience in the garden area of her local Walmart. Violet shared the post and the subsequent comments on the post with me.


The poster was looking for some hosta plants to fill in a new garden. A worker there was clearing some “half-dead” plants and told the poster they were not for sale. When she asked him what plants he was referring to, his responded “all these” and motioned to all the plants in the area where he was working. She figured there were about 30 hosta plants, many of which were “decent-looking.” He told her the plants were to be thrown away and were already out of the store’s inventory system.


“What a shame,” the poster wrote. “I wish I had the nerve to go dumpster diving in the morning.”


It was the poster’s final comment that led to a heated discussion.


Some posters warned her that the plants might be diseased and she would be foolish to retrieve them.


Another asked: “Is it stealing if you take something that’s getting thrown out? I never actually would, but still ...”


Still another recounted her own experience at a different store when she inquired about soon-to-be discarded plants. “I was told they could not let me buy or take them as that would be stealing and I would be prosecuted,” she wrote. “Some really stupid policies if you ask me.”


Violet asked me if it indeed would be wrong to take discarded plants from a dumpster if she happened upon them.


I am not a lawyer specializing in trash, but it seems fair game to take something if it is clearly disposed of as trash and that trash is in a public area. Many cite the U.S. Supreme Court case of California v. Greenwood as support for this stance, even though the case didn’t specifically involved disposed plants. The case is often cited as support for the legality of some cases of dumpster diving.


There are, however, important limitations. If the trash is on private property or the receptacle in which it is dumped is clearly labeled private property, then taking anything might cross into the category of theft. There are also variations in the legality of removing trash based on specific municipal regulations.


In the case of the post on the Violet’s gardening group, the likelihood is that the plants were to be disposed of in a dumpster on Walmart’s private property.


It seems a shame that Walmart couldn’t find a way to at the very least add the dying plants to a compost so they could prove useful if they chose to no longer sell them. But if Walmart disposes of them on its private property, the right thing would be for Violet or others to ask permission to retrieve any discarded plants. The store’s management might not prosecute if someone retrieves the plants, but if the store says “no,” Violet and others should take the response as an indication to let the hostas lie where they’ve been tossed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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