Dumpster Diving- The Whys and the Hows

When I do a home improvement project, or make some item to save me money, like a homemade solar cooker or a homemade food dehydrator, I try to stay away from the lure of purchasing the needed materials, as once I paid for all those things, the projects can easily turn a cost saving project to a costly project. In some cases, its cheapest to buy something instead of making it, as the materials for a project cost more than the purchased final price on sale. (Clothing is one example.) With other projects, such as solar cookers or dehydrators, making from scratch is almost always the cheaper option, as a good new dehydrator or solar cooker can cost upward of 100 or 200 dollars. Even purchasing everything to make it from scratch would still end up cheaper. My goal isn't “cheaper but still expensive”, but rather, as cheap as possible, so I try to make projects like these using as much salvaged material as possible to keep the costs extra low.

Dumpster diving is a great way to get your hands on a bunch of perfectly good and free material, terrific for all sorts of projects. Best way to find good merchandise is first checking out your area. Scout where you can find big, 20 yard dumpsters, and dig in! You'll surely find something worth keeping if you look hard enough. There are dumpster divers who stock their kitchen with what they find in the trash; I'm not that type of dumpster diver. I don't open garbage bags, hunting for perfectly good food, mainly because of various concerns unless things are in sealed packages.
I don't advocate dumpster diving for food, because I know that pushes the boundaries of people's acceptability/norms even more than cloth diapering or the suggestion to make vegetarian meals; even some of the most extremely frugal and environmentally conscious people would feel that they literally had to be starving before they'd resort to eating food rescued from the trash.
The type of dumpster diving that I do recommend is a type that is a bit more palatable to most; utilizing the availability of garbage treasures.

The best places and times to dumpster dive are:
  • In affluent communities on or before trash pickup day. The items being tossed often are of very high quality; the residents can typically afford to upgrade frequently and their things become available for trash pickers.
  • In or around dumpsters behind second hand stores, especially used clothing stores. Many times the store's inventory is overflowing and they have no more room for anything else, so all donations end up straight in the dumpster, including terrific things. I got an entire years' wardrobe for my son for free within one dumpster dive there.
  • In dumpsters near college dorms at the end of the semester. Many students purchase furnishings and textbooks for themselves at the beginning of the semester, and when they go home, everything, even those things in perfect condition (and often unused), goes straight into the trash. For squeamish people who are wary of germs with dumpster diving, you can be rest assured that these dumpsters don't contain any household waste; they're pure treasure. In fact, many people who never trash pick the rest of the time will load up pickup trucks with their finds and proceed to sell them on ebay for a handsome profit.
  • On curbs before trash pickup day in the spring, especially during spring cleaning season. Along with the typical cleaning thats going on, this time of year is also when people tend to replace their wardrobes and household furniture, making it the perfect time to trash pick.
  • Near construction sites. Construction sites are the perfect place to get wood, old windows, bricks, and most things you'd need for your own construction projects. My husband and I picked up half full buckets of paint and joint compound which we then able to use to fix up our house for free. (Make sure to ask permission before dumpster diving in this type of location; many times things that look like trash are actually going to be reused.)
  • In grocery store dumpsters. I generally look near the grocery when I'm in need of cardboard boxes for any sort of project or for a move. This is often the best location to get clean, unbroken boxes for any personal use.
Peeking into dumpsters and in garbage piles along the curb wherever you go can yeild you tremendous treasures, though some “bountry” might take a bit more work or an open mind than others. If you're handy, you can find furniture and electronics that are minimally broken and can be fixed very easily. Even if you're not, many times you can pay a repair person a little bit of money to fix the item and make it usable once again.
If you're open to having less than perfect things, you can usually find lots of usable things there. When my husband and I first married, we only bought one new piece of furniture (our bookshelves) and everything else was either bought second hand or found in the dumpster. The things found in the trash were often of much better quality even than the stuff we bought second hand.
Before starting to make any project, keep an eye on the trash for a few days or weeks. You just might come across exactly what you need to help you make your project, lowering the cost even more.

 Why People Toss Usable Things

  • An item was purchased, used as needed, and the extras were tossed.
  • Upgrading and replacing with a new model.
  • Moving, and don't want to bring the item along.
  • Spring cleaning and decluttering what they no longer use.
  • It broke, and they have no desire or knowledge or ability to fix it.

In most of these cases, the items being tossed are still very much usable and could probably even be sold second hand or donated to a thrift shop, but people often are too busy to be bothered with bringing the item elsewhere or posting a for sale notice, and instead do what is simplest- place it on the curb for trash pickup.
In my mind, if I can buy something second hand for the same quality as the item sitting there on the curb, I see no reason why not to take it (so long as I'm in a location where dumpster diving and trash picking is legal).

Safety First

  • Non pourous, washable surfaces that can be cleaned with strong cleaners to kill any possible germs are your safest, most germ free bet. Clothing or other fabric that can be washed in the machine are also usually fine.
  • In order to stay safest, never actually enter a dumpster- just take things that you can reach from the side, or things placed along the curb for garbage pickup.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching anyone else's trash.
  • If bed bugs are an issue in your location, learn what items are suspect and how to tell if something is infested. Paying for professional bed bug cleaning may be worthwhile if the item is in decent enough condition that paying for cleaning would still be much cheaper than purchasing new. (Note- you'll want it cleaned before it enters your house!)

Do you dumpster dive? What types of things do you usually salvage from the trash? Would you get anything from the trash that is broken with the plans to fix it? What are your rules for dumpster diving? Where are your favorite places to dumpster dive? Would you dumpster dive for food?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. Unfortunately in my city in Australia any type of dumpster diving is illegal, including picking up items placed out for hard rubbish collection. I am happy to disregard these laws, but there was a fuss in the media recently when a person was prosecuted for picking up hard rubbish so it does come with a small amount of real risk.

    I've not kept anything that I've picked up on hard rubbish over the years except for a few outdoor chairs. I found that I eventually wanted to replace the items with better quality, especially chairs & tables. Some other people seem to have much better experience than I do.

  2. It's illegal here as well. It's unfortunate that some "trash" that are usable are going to waste. Some creative people like you can have a good use for them.

  3. Are boxes being thrown in the dumpster? Here all the supermarkets have a specially designed place after the check-out lane/cashiers with their boxes. To use instead of plastic bags or for heavy or breakable goods. Or for moving/crafts :)

  4. I am interested in dumpster diving since I've seen some of the amazing finds you can get but I'm still scared that a manager will run out yelling at me. So the most I've done is scrounge around during my college's end of the year - you'd be amazed how many perfectly good bins and tvs get tossed out.

  5. Where we live, there's a community email list where people generally post saying they're leaving x, y, or z outside their house (with their address), for the taking, and that whoever wants it should come get it, and they'll be tossing it if it's not taken within a certain amount of time.

    We put out two boxes of things when we moved house at the beginning of March, and within 48 hours, everything in both boxes was gone, including the boxes themselves!

    We've got some wonderful things we got like this (my husband has half a set of classical books he got this way several years ago (the other half is with a friend of his parents who got them first, and has told him that if he ever finishes reading the first half, he'll give him the missing ones!)

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