Rust's Drop Trait
October 28, 2022

Rust's Drop Trait

Posted on October 28, 2022  •  4 minutes  • 713 words

The Drop trait in Rust only has one method but it's extremely important. The drop method on the Drop trait is called automatically when an object goes out of scope. This means that when an object's lifetime ends, drop will be called on that object.

The main purpose of the Drop trait is to give developers a place to free up resources when an object is no longer in scope. If your object claims memory, the drop method is where you'll free that memory.

The trait itself is fairly simple:

trait Drop {
    fn drop(&mut self);

There is a standard trait definition with a single function that gets a mutable reference to self.

Automatic Drops

As mentioned above, drop is called automatically when an object goes out of scope. It's important to keep in mind that variables are dropped in reverse order from their creation. For example, if we created variables A then B then C in that order, they would drop in the order of C then B then A. Struct properties, however, are dropped in order of declaration. If you declared a struct with properties A then B then C, they would drop in the order of A then B then C when that struct was dropped itself.

Automatic drops are managed for us via the compiler. This helps prevent common memory management issues like the double free error .

Manually Dropping a Value

Drop is a bit weird compared to other traits. If you try to call drop() on your object, Rust's compiler will complain. The exact message may have changed since publication of this post, but it should be something like error[E0040]: explicit use of destructor method. The destructor is the opposite of a constructor and is a term generally used for the block of code responsible for tearing down objects (in our case, the drop method). Rust does not like us calling drop because when the object goes out of scope, drop will also be called which creates the double free error that Rust has painstakingly tried to avoid for us.

Instead, if we want to drop a value early, we can call std::mem::drop (this is included in the prelude but I'll be referring to it by its fully qualified name to avoid confusion) and pass in the instance we want to drop. Doing so will drop the object right away and not call drop() on the object when it goes out of scope. A shared mutex is a good example of an object that you may want to drop before it goes out of scope.

What's particular interesting about std::mem::drop in my opinion is that the function definition is literally the following:

pub fn drop<T>(_x: T) { }

On top of that, the documentation declares that "This function is not magic" and indeed, it's not! The value of _x is moved into the function and subsequently goes out of scope as soon as the function is closed, so drop from the Drop trait is called on that object. Anything implementing copy is actually unaffected by drop. Since the value is copied into the above function and the reference is not moved into that function, the copied value's object will still be in scope after calling std::mem::drop.

What actually goes in drop?

If you've been searching online, almost every example you'll find of someone implementing drop in a tutorial is simply printing a statement to STDOUT. Unfortunately, that's not helpful in most cases but this is likely because each case of a custom drop implementation is usually unique to a larger context. Take for example a Tree structure in Rust. Assuming you have a node and that node has access to its children via RC and a weak reference to its parents via the Weak type, you may implement drop on a node in such a way that it deallocates that node and it's children. Or perhaps the entire tree is invalid in your usecase then and you can climb to the parent and recursively free the entire tree. Again, this ends up being fairly dependent on what you're building and trying to solve.

Another interesting example revolves around RefCell. Since RefCell enforces its borrow rules at runtime, you can use Drop to release a Refcell borrow.

Cartoon headshot of Brad Cypert
Follow me

Connect with me to follow along on my journey in my career, open source, and mentorship. Occasionally, I'll share good advice and content (quality not guaranteed).