We are an imprudent, wasteful people.
Well, not us. You and I are thrifty, resourceful homesteaders who know how to stretch a dollar and make something out of nothing. I’m speaking of the American people as a whole, who, according to one expert, create four and a half pounds of trash every day per person. Roughly half of that number is from factories and commercial enterprises, but the other half is tossed out of our homes and into the closest dumpster.
One response to that figure is to shake your head and bemoan the sad state of our disposable society.
Another, better response is to go dumpster diving.
What is dumpster diving, exactly? In the grand sense, it’s making treasure out of other people’s trash. People throw away perfectly usable items of all kinds for many reasons, from a minor defect, or a lack of room, or sometimes because they’ve just bought the newest version of something and no longer need the old model. Dumpster diving is just going out and gleaning the fields, in a sense.
People start dumpster diving for many reasons. Sheer necessity drives many people to dive, including the homeless, who essentially learn to live off what society deems to be useless or deficient. One man in my neighborhood has turned dumpster diving into a business by driving around picking up busted furniture and appliances and fixing them up for resale, Sanford & Son-style. Another reason is a more environmental one, as taking items out of the waste stream for your own use instead of buying something new helps doubly. Yet another reason is that some people really just love to find interesting things in the trash for free—the thrill of the hunt. You never know what you’ll encounter every time you go out, and that’s a lot of fun.
How does one dumpster dive? Well, the first rule of dumpster diving is to not jump in the dumpster, that is, do NOT recreate the photo above. While it does render the term a bit of a misnomer, common sense does tell us that while diving headfirst into the unknown might be beautifully poetic, in this case it might be diving into broken glass and rusty nails. So, rein it in for a moment and take a moment to prepare.
First, your clothes. Is that your Sunday finest you’re wearing? Switch that out for some comfortable, disposable clothes. I’ve never gotten so dirty that I had to literally throw an article of clothing away (again, not literally diving in is key), but rips and stains are possible. Experienced divers often invest in a cheap pair of coveralls from the thrift store for this purpose. Good shoes are important as well; thick soled and comfy are the minimum requirements here. If you’re going to start making this a hobby, go ahead and get some leather work gloves as well. If you’ve got long hair, go ahead and tie it back now. A small flashlight, like the LED ones that have become popular as of late, is a great idea. A quick visual sweep of the dumpster with your flashlight is going to save you a lot of time digging around.
Finally, some people like to use a long implement for poking and pulling items in the trash to them. Lots of items you may have lying around will work here: hockey stick, golf club, old broom handle, etc. The key is that it’s sturdy, which means most of those mechanical trash-grabbers you can buy will prove to be useless in the long run.
Before you get out there, let’s discuss etiquette. First, if there is a lock on the dumpster, do not tamper with the lock or the dumpster. Regardless of why it’s on there or what it contains, it’s just not worth it. Next, to paraphrase the old hiking maxim, take only worthwhile items, leave only footprints. There’s no need to clutter your home up with junk, so unless can use the item or can resell it, leave it where you found it. Also, don’t leave trash all over the ground. Instead, if it’s easy enough, throw something on the ground into the dumpster. Good karma and all that. Finally, if there’s ever a “No Trespassing” sign, respect it.
Also, don’t worry about how you’re going to look to the public. Dumpster diving isn’t legally wrong, and in many ways it’s morally right. Some people, to avoid being seen, dive only at night. To me, that only increases the negative perception, making it seem as if you are doing something wrong. Instead, I recommend going during the day, or at least while there’s still daylight. If you’re truly concerned about what to do if someone approaches you and asks what you’re doing, the old standby is to say you’re looking for boxes because you’re moving. Of course, you can always go with the truth and explain what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Most people, even if they’d never do it themselves, find dumpster diving fascinating, and keen to hear all about it. Whatever you do, just remember that you’re doing nothing wrong, and to always be friendly.
Now, where are you going to dumpster dive? It’s unlikely your own trash is going to prove to be very fascinating, so you’ll have to branch out. If you live in an apartment complex, that’s one good place to start, and possibly the location with the most diverse possibilities. Apartments will have some of the most interesting finds, such as furniture, art, household items, and just about anything else one sticks in their home. On the downside, they’ll also contain a lot of literal garbage, like food waste and cat litter, so be careful. One tip here is to check on apartment complexes around the end of each month. Tenants typically will be moving out around this time if their lease is up, and whatever they don’t want to shove in the truck will be left behind. The more considerate (or lazy) will leave it right next to the dumpster. Some of my best finds have been through this method, including couches, tables, chairs, paintings, laptops, and even a Playstation 3.
Another great place to check is the dumpsters near storage units. When someone doesn’t pay the bills to their storage unit, the owners of the business will hold a public auction for the right to the contents of the unit. The catch is that the buyer needs to empty that storage unit out fast, unless they plan on simply taking over payments, so often the case is that the buyer will take what they want and trash the rest in the dumpster. Usually there’s still plenty left behind that either doesn’t have a huge resale value, such as clothes or books, or is too big to fool with for that buyer, such as furniture or old-school big-screen TVs. Also, for the nosy or the artistic, buyers almost universally leave behind personal items like photos and letters, which sometimes paint an amazing portrait of an individual you’ll never meet, proving fodder for any aspiring writer’s characters.
Business dumpsters are another excellent place to search. This is one time when frequenting small businesses is actually a bad idea, only because the smaller business is going to throw away less, both because they have less inventory and because they tend to not toss items away nearly as much. However, the biggest stores will usually have a compactor that they throw all their items into, and a dumpster just for cardboard, perhaps. This should go without saying, but do not get into a trash compactor. Anyone who’s seen Star Wars knows it’s not a fun place to be. Also, do not disable the compactor. That takes you from being someone reusing and repurposing goods, that would otherwise end up in a landfill, to just being a petty vandal.
Instead, try to find the sweet spot regarding business size. Strip malls are usually a good place for this. The anchors of the mall are unlikely to be worth messing with because of the compactors, but everything else should be fair game. Unless you’re a freegan, pass right on by any restaurant dumpsters. You’ll typically know those by the smell, and usually because they’re covered in caked-on, black grease. From here, you can either look at each dumpster, or just at stores that sell what you’re hoping to find. A bookstore is going to throw away books, a furniture store will throw away furniture, a beauty supply place is going to… and so on. Some people just drive behind the stores and stop at each dumpster, but I prefer to park and walk. If something ends up being too big to carry or there’s too much of it, you can always go get the car.
One last great idea, which is on the fringes of a strict dumpster-diving definition, is checking out the curb after someone has a yard sale. I’ve never seen a yard sale where everything sold, and once it’s on the curb, it’s trash to the previous owner. Scout out yard sales in your local newspaper’s classifieds and drive by after they’re scheduled to end. If you’d rather be proactive, swing by while the yard sale is still going on and ask if you can take what doesn’t sell. In many cases, people are just trying to clear space out in their house or garage, and if they can’t make any money off it, getting it out of their way is just as good. The proactive approach works well at construction sites as well. One friend of mine showed up at the end of the day with a six pack or so of beers and asked the workers if they had anything that wasn’t going to be used or moved to the next site. By establishing a rapport with the crew, they supplied him with lots of materials over the year, and he built his two-bedroom house for under $10,000.
Where shouldn’t you dumpster dive? Part of that answer lies with how much ick you can stand.
Now’s a good time to touch on dumpster diving’s legality. The Supreme Court set a precedent in 1988 in California v. Greenwood, stating that once someone puts something in the trash, he or she has relinquished their rights to it and anyone can take it. So, unless your specific city has a rule against going through a dumpster, there shouldn’t be any problems. If you’re following the previously mentioned tips (no messes, no trespassing, no destroying property) then that goes doubly. If someone sees you and asks you to stop, don’t spout your newly-garnered SCOTUS case knowledge. Just stop, smile, and move along. There’s plenty more trash where that came from.
“But,” you’re saying, “I need this specific item or more of these things.” A lot of dumpster diving is about the journey and not the destination. Sometimes you’ll hit a few dumpsters and strike out at each one. Other times the back seat of your car will be stuffed with piles of goodies. Like other hobbies, such as gardening, going to yard sales, and such, it’s about delayed gratification. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing to learn how to deal with in the instant gratification times we live in. Take the time to enjoy the walk, the anticipation of a child on Christmas morning as you peer into a new dumpster or one that’s done you well so many times before, and the thought that you’re both helping the environment and helping yourself at the same time.