From Dumpster Diving to Garage Sales, Turning Trash Into Cash
Last year I made over $1,200 off of other people’s garbage. But then, I'm serious about reusing and recycling. I'm not afraid to yell, "Stop the car! That's good garbage!" in a crowded intersection. (See also: The Compact: Mindfullness and Frugality Through Buying Used)
Some of the garbage I find is actual money. Every year I manage to pick up around $20 in change off the ground. My favorite places to find lost change are in front of the counter at the post office and under the CoinStar machine at the grocery store. Last year I got lucky and actually found a $20 bill on the street, so my found money total rose to $44.03.
I don’t know what makes pennies not real currency in the eyes of so many people. A penny saved really is a penny earned, but a penny found is a penny that isn’t taxed. Do I even spend ten minutes a year bending over to pick up an average of $20 in small change? You would think that most Americans, especially in this economy, would be stoked to do an activity that pays $120 an hour. But no. Even total strangers laugh at me when I lean down to pick up coins off the ground. Yep, I am so embarrassed that the $44.03 I found bought a very nice dinner for my husband and me.
Bottles and Cans Are as Good as Cash
Although Los Angeles has the largest recycling program in the nation, and bottles and cans are redeemable for cash, I was still able to recycle $340 worth of glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans that I picked up off the street. $120 of that $340 came from one alcoholic neighbor who decided that throwing her wine bottles onto the parkway from her window was easier than walking them to her recycling bin. Sadly, I don’t think that my neighbors are particularly terrible litterbugs. Many students at my local universities appear to have problems putting their recyclables into a recycling container, even when the container is right next to the trash. Classroom trashcans are full of plastic water bottles and Red Bull cans.
For me, $340 seems like big money for bringing a box of recyclables to the grocery store every week, but I am not even Junior Varsity when it comes to recycling income. There’s a family in Los Angeles who put three of their kids through college with the money they earned collecting cans.
Found Textbooks Are Educational (and Redeemable)
Speaking of college, I live within walking distance of one university, work at another one night a week, and am a student at a third. Last year, I earned $468 from selling back textbooks I’d pulled out of the dumpsters at school. This paid for my tuition and my textbooks for my Italian classes. My education was paid for with garbage.
Found Objects Are Garage Sale Inventory
Last year I made over $400 selling things I’d found on the street on Craigslist and at garage sales. I paid for my wedding ($159) with the earnings of one garage sale. This is hardly my greatest feat of trash picking. I paid for two entire years of my life by collecting stuff that my neighbors had curbed on trash day — and selling the stuff back to them at monthly garage sales. While my monthly expenses during 1996 and 1997 were only $1,000 a month, that’s still $24,000 I made at my part-time trash picking “job.”
Depending on the laws regarding trash pickup and garage sales in your area, my success may or may not be achievable everywhere. Some cities like West Hollywood, California cap the number of garage sales a household can have each year, while other municipalities prohibit “dumping” usable items on the curb. Check the laws in your area so you don't get saddled with a hefty fine.
Keeping What You Find
In addition to making money from the cast-offs of others, I also save around $1,000 a year by reusing items that are destined for the dump.
At the end of every school year, university dumpsters are full of everything from textbooks to clothes to electronics — items deemed too inconvenient or too expensive to ship home. While I have yet to get up early enough to nab a last generation iPod or mini fridge like my neighbors have, I rarely pay for laundry detergent and can’t remember the last time I spent money on a spiral notebook, manila folder, mailing envelope, or three ring binder. School dumpsters are full of half used cleaning supplies and stationery products. Some schools like NYU actually have a garbage amnesty day that encourage community recycling, so if you live in a college town, check into your school’s end of the year trash picking policy.
Hardware Store and Nursery Finds
My local hardware store is my shipping box supplier. Hardware stores carry a lot of heavy products that come in sturdy, tiny to small cardboard boxes that are the perfect size for shipping etsy sale items. Since the hardware store has to pay for trash collection and recycling per dumpster, the owner encourages people to take the boxes by stacking them neatly by the back door. I get a steady stream of cardboard boxes (one less thing that I have to hoard in my house), and the store gets a lower garbage bill.
One of the local plant nurseries has a similar policy with their pony packs — those segmented plant containers that hold four to six seedlings. Apparently it’s cheaper to trash the entire pony pack if just one of the plants is dead or missing, rather than going to the trouble of replanting the plants in single containers or putting the pack on sale. Unlike the big box stores, which chop up the plants before throwing them in the garbage, ensuring that everyone and the planet gets screwed, the local nursery puts the “damaged” pony packs by the dumpster in the back alley every Sunday night before closing. There is a dedicated group of frugal gardeners that show up at 5:05 pm every week to divvy up the plants. Since I don’t mind growing mystery vegetable and flower varieties, this is a great way to get free landscaping and food.
The 2012 trash to treasure project that I am most proud of was using wood that I harvested from a damaged dresser, to make a shelf for my vintage armoire.
Are you a trash picker? Why or why not? What’s the best thing you’ve ever found in the garbage?