Dumpster wading.

While house-sitting here in Anchorage I took my friend’s recyclables over to the transfer station. It’s a small way for me to help her out.

Turns out it’s a good way to shop, too.

Look, a copy of Spider magazine! Oh my gosh – a volume of the Childcraft encyclopedia from the early 1960s. Wouldn’t my nephew love to hear the stories in Spider? Wouldn’t it be retro-cool for my niece the schoolteacher to show her students how to play games like “Run Sheep Run”?

Snagged ’em.

Better still: 12- and 24-packs of Coca Cola products. I fished out any that I could reach for the My Coke Rewards points. Each is worth 10 to 20 points a pop, as it were.

I also saw two rolls of cash, which excited me briefly – that is, until I realized they were a little too large to be real greenbacks. They were some kind of novelty item. I took them anyway, figuring they’d give the kids a giggle.

And if not? I could always re-recycle them.

Some people are dumpster divers. I’m more of a dumpster wader. I’m not willing to climb in and get dirty, or to risk injury. But anything I can reach, I’ll harvest.

Here’s my favorite example. One night in fall 2005 I was having a hard time doing homework in my poorly lit apartment. The next day, a halogen floor lamp landed in the dumpster outside my window. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe it’s true what they say: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

If it’s free, it’s for me

For several years I managed the apartment building in which I live. Among my duties was checking the trash and recycle bins. When residents moved out, the bins frequently filled up with things tenants didn’t want to take along.

A number of those items seemed barely used. Several were still shrink-wrapped. So you bet I scavenged. Canned goods, candles, picture frames, a Seattle-themed Monopoly game, books, a computer keyboard and mouse, bookcases, gift wrap, a freestanding mirror, clothes hangers and cleaning supplies – they were free and they were for me.

None were dirty or stained; I took only things that were cushioned by other clean items. All came in handy, since I was still setting up housekeeping. My daughter used some of them, too.

It was a shame that their owners couldn’t find time (or couldn’t be bothered) to drop off the items at a thrift shop. At least three such stores exist within a 3-mile radius of the apartment building.

Only once did I get creeped out: When I moved a couple of items aside and saw a departing tenant’s framed family photos. Although the frames were quite nice, I couldn’t bring myself to take them. It would have felt like kidnapping. But seeing pictures of the woman and her daughter smiling up out of the garbage was disturbing. I wish I knew the story there. Or maybe I don’t.

If you can reach it, it’s yours

Dumpster wading at the recycling center is different. No need to worry about leaking garbage sacks or hidden bags of used cat litter. I’m pulling clean, dry items out of the mixed paper receptacle – and I’m not the only one.

I’ve seen several people rescuing magazines, titles as varied as Good Housekeeping, InStyle and Diesel Power. A kindergarten teacher once told me that the recycling bins are a great source for magazines for projects such as “cut out at least three things that start with the letter ‘N’.”

I saw other items in the mixed paper bin that could be re-used, such as gift bags, manila and accordion folders, decorative boxes and lots of the paper that moving companies use to wrap breakables. If I were packing my belongings in a rented moving van, I’d check the recycle bins before buying wrapping paper.

I also saw a woman fishing around in the newspaper bin. When she saw me looking she said, a bit defiantly, “I coupon.”

“So do I,” I replied. She relaxed visibly, and smiled.

How can you say ‘no’?

I understand why some companies hate dumpster divers. They might make messes. They might get hurt and sue. A few times I had to ask folks not to climb into bins, or chase away the ones who scanned items and tossed them onto the ground instead of back into the dumpster.

But if they were just pulling out things they could reach, and not wrecking the joint? I didn’t really care. When you see a guy hold up a pair of obviously used boots and yell to his companion, “Man, look at these!” – well, how are you going to tell him he’s not allowed to keep them?

I’d never advise people to climb into a dumpster. Too much can go wrong. Not only are there a lot of really, really bad-smelling things in the trash, there are also hidden hazards like broken glass.

But if you can reach an item easily, you can keep it out of the landfill. You can meet some of your needs frugally. And if you’re really lucky, you can do your homework by it.

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  1. Holly Samlan

    In 2001 my late DH did a shopowner friend a favor by taking out the trash. He found a FULL couple year old Gateway desktop computer (tower, monitor, keyboard & mouse). I am STILL using it. I have replaced everything but the tower.

    It is OLD. It is SLOW. It lacks memory BUT………Since I am unemployed, its ok for me.

  2. I’ve been one of those people who couldn’t make it to the thrift store– finished packing lonnnnng after thrift stores closed (movers in at 7am the next day). Brought items out to the dumpster area and listed them on craigslist. Not everything got taken, but many of the better items did. We did happily manage to give our air conditioner to the people who lived downstairs, which meant less of a walk. “Really?” they asked incredulously. “We’re moving to a place with central a/c” we replied. “Nice!” they said. “Oh, not in City, we’re moving to the Deep South.” They gave their condolences and hoped it would work out.

  3. jestjack

    I have been a landlord for some time and have witnessed much of the behavior you describe. It troubles me as well that folks leave very personal items behind when moving. Recently I saw a fairly freshly cast hand print of a child given to the parent as a Mother’s Day gift in the trash left in a unit. DW has a very similiar cast of DD1’s tiny hand when she was about 2 years old that she has displayed in our living room since the gift was recieved…DD will be 30 next birthday….LOL.
    Equally troubling is the junk tenants leave in the unit but try to defend the action by saying the item is usable. Good example….recently lady leaves a small apartment size fridge in the baement of a house. When asked at the walk-thru what was up with the unit….she explained…”it works….it just doesn’t keep things cold”….which is a fridge’s primary function to my way of thinking. I reply then it’s junk and will have to be hauled to the landfill. The time I spent explaining that a fridge that doesn’t keep things cold isn’t really of use to anyone could have been better spent doing something positive. CHEEES!!!

  4. Spot on again, Donna. I’m getting ready to ship DJ off to England so I’m working on my accent.

  5. I don’t dive. I carry a reacher. My friend found over $7000 worth of gift shop items, some worth hundreds of dollars, with just a tiny chip or needing some minor repair. Yes, seven thousand dollars.

  6. SherryH

    I used to be bothered by this in college – people cheerfully left so much perfectly usable stuff behind when they moved out in the spring. I mean, I get it. People are from out of state, maybe even out of the country, and can’t take it with them.

    But the WASTE! Of perfectly good stuff! Lamps and blow driers and mostly-full bottles of toiletries. (If you knew the year was ending and you couldn’t pack it, wouldn’t you go for the small bottle, at least?) I scored a nice bulletin board that we still use, and college for me was a long time ago… well, let’s just say my older kid may well start this year. And that’s just in the ‘trash room’/incinerator access – that doesn’t count the furniture casually chucked in the dumpsters outside. Unbelievable.

    Come to think of it, we’re also still using the barrister cases my husband found a similarly long time ago, tossed outside an office for the trash pickup because the occupant had upgraded.

    I just… don’t get it.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sherry: A university professor I know told me about a friend who picks up all kinds of stuff when students leave for the year. Once it was even a big-screen TV, before such things were as semi-affordable as they are now.

  7. SherryH

    Oh, jestjack – maybe she meant that the refrigerator kept things cool, but not cold, and so could be used for sodas and the like, but not perishables? Or maybe she used it like my husband’s aunt used her old freezer – as mouse- and bug-proof storage for dry goods? But, yeah – useful to her, maybe, but junk when she leaves it behind and you get stuck hauling it away.

  8. Totally with you on the spunk and resourcefulness of dumpster wading. And I like the lack of false pride, i.e. discarding any embarrassment. I don’t relate, though, to “if it’s free, it’s for me”. Someone else might need the free thing more than I do, plus, I hate clutter. If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to get a comment from you on my latest edition of Top Ten Things To Happily Live Without http://www.diamondcutlife.org/top-ten-things-to-happily-live-without-part-ii/#respond

    • Donna Freedman

      @Alison: I don’t take every free thing I see — just the ones I or someone else can use.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. zzzzzz

    I suggest freecycle as a good way to find a good home for those things you don’t need any more or can’t take with you when you move.

  10. At one apartment building I lived at, when a bunch of college students moved out they left no less than half a dozen pairs of crutches in the trash bin. Still boggles my mind…

  11. Donna-
    Re: Freecycle. I give and receive. My safety caveat is to leave things out on the stone wall at the end of the driveway. No need to approach the house, they just grab and go! I arrange a date and time frame. If it’s not gone by the time it’s supposed to be, and there has been no communication by the other person, they get reported to the moderator. 2 strikes and they are banned from participating. I don’t have time to wait for people and you never know who is coming to your home either. As far as receiving items, I never enter other people’s homes, and ask they they leave things out for me to get. I recently got some brand new tea, left in a mailbox . Perfect!

  12. ImJuniperNow

    My cousin in Connecticut has to take his trash to “the dump”. I love nothing better than going with him when I visit. Up there, the dump employees actually pull the good stuff out and put it in a special shed (or ask you to deposit it there) for recycling/reusing by anyone. I haven’t found that $250k coffee table as featured on Antiques Roadshow, but you may see me there someday!

  13. At the dump where my aunt lives there’s a special place to live good items that are there for the taking. One time she found a never been opened in the box Shark Floor and Carpet Sweeper, so she took it, and then wrapped it up and gave it to my grandma for a present. Not only does grandma love to use it, she loves telling the story about how she got it.

    Also one year to earn extra money I cleaned student housing (not dorms but apartments) a co worker knew how to get us hired and we did it after work. Most of the people did the job all day. It was hard work because the students would leave everything filthy. BUT they also left a ton of stuff. At one place we found unopened food in the cupboards and fridge, clothes in the dryer, papers and magazines and a Betta fish.

    I also have an ex step cousin who at one time was pretty much a Freegan (this was about 15 years ago). He couldn’t go to school because he refused to sign the selective service, but he had some kind of job and he and his friends lived in a warehouse and rode their bikes everywhere. He was telling me about how they managed to furnish their place and get stuff to sell by picking up stuff when students left for the semester. Computers, printers, clothes, etc.

  14. supposedely normal

    i agree. i live near a city with a major university, and often the sidewalks in late spring are replete with stuff being abandoned. i pick up plenty of books and other things…

    i have seen kitchen gadgets, tvs, furniture, etc. left behind when they return home.

    when i was that age, i certainly did not have any concept of the financial waste i was leaving in my wake, let alone the environmental waste, etc. it takes time to grow up and many (dont jump on me, i’m not saying all…) college age here in the u.s. are not mature enough to see themselves in anyone else’s eyes except their peers.

  15. CandiO

    Hey that roadshow coffee table originally purchsed for 75$, actually sold at auction for 400,000$. Well over the estimated 250,000$. And I am still looking for that find myself!

  16. Your posts make me miss Tightwad Gazette less. We leave things on our curb with a “free” sign and have fun seeing how long it takes for someone to claim them. Once, our “free” sign,scribbled on a wood shingle was taken as well! DH loves to get wood at the dump– perfectly good pieces he can use to build and repair things. We don’t need to do this, but we get a lot of satisfaction out of creatively reusing.

  17. I’m working at a Chicago tourist attraction this summer, and one thing I’ve noticed about tourists is that they drink a lot of bottled Coke. Often they’ll throw the bottles into the trash can or on the ground, or they’ll bring them to the store where I work and ask me to throw the bottles away for them. So I’ve been taking the bottles to the recycling bins and keeping the caps for MyCokeRewards; I’m accumulating extra points for free movie tickets and thanks to the tourists, I don’t even have to buy extra soda!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Neurotic Workaholic: Free caps! Yay! And the movie tickets never expire.

  18. christy

    I live in a city that you can put anything on the curb and it will disappear by morning. Even when I bother to put a free sign on it people will stop and look around like they are worried someone will think they are stealing it.

    Boxes of odds and ends or weird stuff I just put out in a box. What isn’t taken within a day will get dropped off at the Salvation Army store.

  19. christy

    I live in Michigan, when you buy a soda you pay a 10 cent bottle deposit on it. When you take them back to the store you get 10 cents back, the cans and bottles are recycled, grocery stores all have “bottle returns” in them, it’s a little room with machines you feed the bottles or cans into, the machines then spit out a bottle return slip you use like a coupon when you check out (or you can just get cash for them) As many people are lazy (and litter) there are pop bottles and cans that are left around that people collect (anyone but often drunks and homeless, students etc) and then get cash for. During art festivals etc smart people go around collecting cans and can make $100’s of dollars a day during them. I don’t know why more states don’t have bottle deposits, it would probably increase recycling more.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Christy: I wish they had deposits in Seattle — I see a ton of discarded bottles and cans on my walks. And the guys and gals who pull cans out of our recycle bin would actually make some money, vs. the low per-pound rate they currently get.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  20. zzzzzz

    Where I live, a lot of Freecyclers just post the stuff they don’t want anymore, then put it out on the curb. Whatever’s left by trash pickup day goes in the trash can.

  21. My undergrad institution collects all the stuff students leave, then has a big sale in the middle of the summer to which they invite all the school employees. I think some of the maintenance workers buy things cheap there and resell for profit.

    That’s a lot better than my grad institution that wastes money hiring people to take things to the dump. You’d think more schools would have figured out that the exact same thing happens every year.

  22. Once after a garage sale, I left out a box of free stuff which included a toy pony – one of those ones with the horse head on top of a “riding” stick. The next day, everything was gone… except for the horse head. The stick part was unscrewed and taken but the head was left behind. Lol. Never know what will be useful to people!

    In terms of stuff left for trash, I’ve picked up lots of furniture, books (why throw away books!?!), and lots of plant pots. Awesome.

  23. I once pulled out a ream of paper from the top of the dumpster. Turned out it was “really nice” paper that I couldn’t use. I freecycled it.

  24. I’ve always wanted to try this but never had the nerve to do it alone. I used to work as a writer for a website and a colleague and I were going to write a story on identity theft, specifically, how stores like CVS have been caught repeatedly throwing out old patient records with all sorts of personal information that could be used by ID thieves. We never did get around to doing it, but it would have been fun.

  25. What a great article. I have so much fun picking up free stuff this way. I have a vast collection of foreign coins from the change grinders at markets- at least enough in Euros to buy lunch. One day I checked and the bin was full-and the chute as well, The total rolled was $113, mostly in dimes. I have no idea why anyone left that much behind other than that it got so full the dropping coins no longer “clinked”.

  26. Be careful where you dumpster dive. It is illegal in the City/County in Virginia where I live.

  27. It is also illegal in Texas. My friends son went to jail for looking in dumpsters.

  28. I was once fairly well off but due to bad financial turn of events now must dumpster dive. At first it was difficult psychologically but I can now proudly admit I have a nice dining room table and four chairs as well as a presentable rocker recliner in my house. My wife and I have found many usable items in dumpsters, at curbs and in apartment junk piles. It is surprising what good items people throw away. We also buy good household items at Habitat that are very cheap and the proceeds help their home building efforts.

  29. average guy

    i know this is an old post, but something to add…

    if you are in to dumpsters, a *must read* is: “The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving.”

    Hilarious. I would not go to some of the extremes mentioned in it, but some of it is great with some good ideas.

    You can find it in used book stores, etc., or here:

    It inspired me when I went looking for those 5-gallon buckets. I wanted to find used, free buckets made with food-grade plastic to use in the garden. After some thinking and looking, I found a good source: donut (doughnut) shops. Out back, on days they are closed. While many donut shops might bake their own donuts, as sure as shooting most wont bother to make their fillings. They buy the fillings, and the fillings often come in very handy containers, like 5 gallon buckets. Once empty, the shops discard the buckets out back. One local shop in my area can be counted on to have one or more buckets every week. I guess many people eat donuts.


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