Can I go through their garbage bin on garbage day to find out more about them, without getting myself arrested in the process?

In writing this section, I cannot help but feel I am setting myself up for someone to use this information against me, as I am sure I am the strange neighbour that my neighbours worry about.

I’m surprised the lovely couple that lives next to us have not installed holy crosses, garlic, and razor wire to protect their doors and windows. Not that I would blame them if they did. I’m a redhead, and no one ever trusts a redhead. We are the most misunderstood and maligned group of people in the world, and also the most prone to exaggerating the extent of our misfortunes.

While I do not like to point my accusatory finger at people, I will say that my wife is the real (and highly skilled) snoop in our family. As we live in an apartment, we have a communal garbage room. One of her favourite hobbies, and greatest talents, is to piece together the lives of our neighbours based on the trash they leave in the recycling bins, and then tell me what she has deduced from her spying:

‘Oh, look at all these empty wine bottles. Apartment D must be back on the booze. She was doing so well. And it looks like she received a letter from her doctor. I hope she is all right. I noticed a lot of empty painkiller packets in her garbage last week, so I hope it is nothing serious.’

At least, that’s what my wife says to me in my mind. What she tends to say to my face are things like: ‘If you write about me in your book, you are in deep shit. Sleep with one eye open, asshole.’

If you want to learn more about your neighbour, or just want to take all the good stuff they throw in the trash, the legal issue is the same: can you legally go through your neighbour’s bin? And, if you do, can you keep anything interesting you find, or do you have to get your neighbour’s permission first?

Well, the answer all depends on when, and how, you go through your neighbour’s garbage like some kind of human-shaped ibis.

First up, you can’t go into your neighbours’ house and start rifling through their kitchen garbage bin without their permission. If you do, this is called break and enter, and theft, and both of these are very, very naughty (and criminal) acts. Not even my wife or I would go that far, unless it was on a dare or we really, really needed closure on our neighbour’s medical issues and rampant alcoholism.

However, if your neighbours put their bin out on the street on garbage day, or if you live in an apartment building with a communal garbage area like us, you are legally allowed to ferret through the trash and see what interesting items you can discover. If in your searching you happen upon a particularly fine piece of semi-eaten fruit, you can legally take it and eat it. Similarly, if you come across, say, a discarded toothbrush, feel free to take it and use it in your own mouth.

The courts in Australia have said on several occasions that if someone discards an item by throwing it into their bin (or is it their ‘trash’? I always get these words confused), that person has demonstrated an intention to discard that item, and no longer has ownership of it. Once discarded, anyone else is free to claim the item from that point forward. Now, the person who discarded it could reclaim ownership of the item by rescuing it from the bin, but until they do that discarded piece of garbage / treasure is up for grabs.

That means you are legally allowed to have a dig through your neighbours’ bin, if that’s really what you want to do on a fun Saturday evening. Just make sure you are not trespassing on their land when you do it. Ideally, they will have put their bin out on the footpath or street (or the communal garbage area in an apartment building) rather than just inside the boundary of their property.

Please don’t go crazy though. When your neighbours put their bin out on the street, they obviously are not disposing of the bin itself, just what is inside of it. So don’t take their bin, please. Leave the bin alone. Step away from the bin. Understand? I hope you’ve been good about this. TAKE THE BIN AND RUN.

Oh, just one more thing to keep in mind, if you’re currently stalking your neighbours (and if you are, maybe stop). If your neighbours report you for stalking them then going through their bin, even if it is out on the street or in a communal garbage area, is very good supporting evidence that you are a stalker. While you might not be charged with theft, you might instead be charged with stalking if you combine bin rummaging with, say, following your neighbours everywhere they go and leaving very graphic love poems on their doorstep.

It’s a fine line between ‘following’ and ‘stalking’ as my wife found out when we were dating. I remain firmly of the belief that a bit of light stalking is romantic and shows you are really interested in your potential future spouse. The law says otherwise.

What I am trying to say is: please don’t cross the line from weird neighbour, to full-on stalker, when you go through your neighbours’ trash. Right, my lovely wife?