Dumpster-Diving 101: 6 Strategies for Success


The idea of dumpster-diving seems to push the limits of even the most frugal among us. Visions come to mind of foraging in muck, half-disguised out of fear being spotted by a neighbor, only to rush home for a shower worthy of Silkwood when it’s all over. But the reality is far more reasonable, clean, and civilized than you might imagine.

Dumpster-diving (an unfortunate misnomer in most cases, as I’ve never seen anyone actually get in a dumpster) is a spectrum activity; you can go as far as your comfort level allows and there are great finds to be had at each point.

Let’s face it, the recession has uprooted a lot people — folks are on the move as they return to college, downsize, look for work, and consolidate households. Objects are the albatrosses in times of change and all that upheaval creates opportunity. After 20 years ‘diving,’ in large cities and small towns, I’ve developed a six-point strategy on how to dumpster-dive safely and effectively. This guide can serve as a primer for newbies and push the more experienced toward even better finds.

1. Determine Your Territory

Selection varies widely between residential and commercial dumpsters. If you focus on commercial areas, look for businesses that sell what you might be interested in and have high product turnover. Because most businesses consider diving a threat to customer privacy and future profits, commercial dumpsters are often secured and items in them damaged or destroyed to prevent reselling. Tread carefully in these areas. I’ve found residential diving to be best around large apartment buildings in established neighborhoods where tenant turnover is consistent and moving budgets modest. Usually apartment dwellers don’t have much storage space or areas to host yard sales, so excess items end up on the street or in the dumpster.

2. Timing Is Everything

When I lived in Chicago, October and May were always the prime picking months. Old apartment leases ending and new ones beginning create a glut of items weeded out in the transition. During these months, the alleyways in Chicago were veritable shopping aisles full of chairs, air conditioners, lamps, dishes, books, and clothes just waiting for an open trunk. In other neighborhoods, look for estate sales and yard sales — the evening after one of these events usually finds most unsold items relegated to the curb.

3. Courtesy Counts

Diving is a community activity and its devotees come from all walks of life. I never forget that what is an eccentric hobby for me may be the sole means of support for someone else. Courtesy is key — not only for the property owner, but for the next diver. Leave the spot better than you found it; items strewn about only create a hazard for cars, give diving a bad name and show lack of consideration for the next guy. If a spot is particularly good, some divers flag it by setting something on top of the dumpster to differentiate it from the rest. Little acts of forethought and kindness are important to divers too.

4. Select and Reject

Not all objects survive house-to-curb equally well and I’m not above the ‘gross factor’ when it comes to certain items. My personal rule has always been to avoid anything that can’t be washed or disinfected easily. Upholstered furniture, mattresses, and some clothing immediately fall within my “no thanks” category. A thorough look-over and quick smell test can usually tell you all you need know. Remember, knowing what to reject is just as important as knowing what to grab.

5. Take Only What You Need

In large urban areas or college towns the fruits of diving can be so great that you’ll need to exercise a bit of restraint. Diving should be a way of reducing expenses, not adding to them with storage costs. There’s more than enough to go around; leave something for next guy.

6. Safety, Gear and the Law

Items relegated to the garbage are typically considered part of the public domain, but this can vary by municipality. Respect local ordinances and private property boundaries and never jeopardize your safety. If you’re diving at night, go with a buddy or small group of friends.< There’s always safety (and a bit more fun) in numbers. Likewise, proper gear is essential to safe diving: a small LED flashlight helps when diving at night and a pair of form-fitting rubberized gardening gloves will protect your hands from broken glass. Anti-bacterial hand sanitizer provides a little peace-of-mind in between pit stops too. Toss a plastic or nylon tarp in your trunk — it comes in handy when you need to protect your car’s upholstery from heavy, sharp or particularly grimy items.

Granted, dumpster diving may be an acquired taste. The psychological leap in retrieving something from the trash and making it part of your home is too great for some folks to make. But in a world filled with excess, with entire islands of garbage floating in our oceans and more new ‘stuff’ being cranked out every day, diving is the ultimate green activity. It’s recycling at its most primary — giving another life to an existing object without the need of secondary recycling and remanufacture. Once you’re bitten by a great find and the rush of that $0.00 price tag, you may never look back.

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Guest's picture

A couple useful tools for dumpters - a broom handle with a heavy screw hook in the end. This allows you to pull items to you. Also a grabber (a tool usually used to reach items high on shelves) is useful for grabbing items in a partial full dumpster after using the broom handle.

Guest's picture

I would suggest that night divers try to be QUIET when they work after hours. My windows are right next to the Dumpsters. Every now and then I hear loud talking about what scroungers are finding, the crashing of items as they get moved around (the sound of breaking glass is particularly unnerving late at night), and sometimes the SLAM! of the Dumpster lids.
As the former manager, I appreciate your including the caveat to leave the area tidy. I've had to clean up after messy folks. It's no fun.
But as someone who has gotten her own share of freebies this way, I have to agree that the price is right.

Guest's picture

Don't actually get in the dumpster - no one can see you. When we were moving out of our apartment in college, we too purged inventory to essentials. Oblivious to the existence of a diver in our apartment dumpster, I heaved an excess portable fan over the wall of the dumpster only to hear a fleshy impact and bloodcurdling "OUCH!" Not expecting that, I, too, let out a sharp yell and ran inside. I felt bad for the guy, watching him crawl out from our apartment window with his hand over his head, but how was I supposed to know or expect that a person would be in the dumpster?

Kentin Waits's picture

Excellent (and painful!) point and one that I'm sure isn't considered very often. Thanks!

Guest's picture

Interesting article...as they say.."one man's trash is another man's treasure!" Though I can't say I've ever "dumpster dove," I have found things like furniture in mid-condition on sides of the street and always find timeless trinkets at garage sales. I like the fact that you mentioned how important courtesy is, I couldn't agree more. Once a dumpster diver leaves a mess on your lawn, this harmless activity gets a negative image unfortunately. But, if it's done in a respectable manner, everyone wins. Great way to recycle instead of waste also!

Guest's picture

The Supreme Court ruled several years ago that if it is in the trash, it is in the public domain and any one can have at it. Even the police, without a warrant

Guest's picture

I loved this article! I found a great piece of art by "branching out" of my comfort zone: http://whiterabbitisme.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/dumpster-diving/

Guest's picture
Larry Huffman

I have dived in dumpsters for 20 years. I have found furniture , recyclables , and food which is still safe to eat! What is wrong with a bag of potatoes or onions? I have also found cleaning supplies and decent clothing.

Andrea Karim's picture

There's a man who lives in my neighborhood who is either a hoarder or someone who dives and then sells stuff on CL - I'm not sure which, because he's afraid of my dogs and runs the other direction when he sees me. Yes, a grown man is afraid of a shih tzu.

Because of him and other homeless people in the area, we've just taken to leaving usable goods outside of the dumpster rather than throwing it in. It's hard for everyone to watch him lean into the dumpster and dig around (plus, there are bags of dog poop in there), so we just stack the items neatly at the base of the dumpster. They're always gone within 12 hours.

The people who use this dumpster (as a dumpster) throw away some of the best stuff. I'm often tempted to grab things, but I don't have the space or the time to clean them up to resell or give away.

Guest's picture
Susan L. Wistrand

My best find was an original photo by CC Lockwood. He is a world reknown Louisiana Wildlife photographer featured from Life Magazine to National Geographic. It was signed, dated and in it's original frame. I called CC and he appraised it at $650.00. Since I am a rabbit fanatic, I donated the photo to Magic Happens Rabbit Rescue in Baton Rouge, LA. Everybunny should love a bunny! :)

Guest's picture

look in the dumpster and see if there's anything worth trying to get if you think there might be something worth something then go for it but if your not sure i would just go on to the next one and keep try that.


Guest's picture

Great post. I don't do much dumpster diving anymore, but several of the counties near me in California have what is called "Spring Cleanup". It allows residents to get rid of large bulky items once per year without an extra garbage pickup charge. I have found some AMAZING items. Some I keep and a lot I resell on Craigslist. It's a shame what ends up in the landfill, so I like to think that I am upcycling the items rather than seeing them in the trash. I usually net between five hundred and fifteen hundred dollars a year on stuff that others thought was rubbage. Yes, it takes time, but it's true what they say - either you have time or you have money. And nothing beats FREE.

Guest's picture
Guest Dumpster Diver

I look in my local dumpsters for e-waste. I have found every thing from ham radios to laptop pc's. Sold the ham for 600.00 not bad 2 hours worth of diving. I have made several thousand dollars repairing and reselling this stuff.

Guest's picture
beverly Burton

I worked at several TV/film studios in Hollywood over the years and found UNBELIEVABLE things in the dumpsters on the studio lots -brand new office products, books sent from publishers to producers for consideration for movie projects, clothing, food, props, furniture, tools, electronics, on and on;some very iconic stuff -once found an old metal movie reel.

Guest's picture

In this time of crisis we cant really deny the fact that some of us resolved into dumpster diving. For me this is not an issue, what matters most that you are doing it with regards to your health and with some safety precaution in mind. There are lots of money behind dumpster, that is if you are really am hardworking and very resourceful surely you can find lot of things that may be useless to some but very useful to others.

Guest's picture

Thanks for the tips! It's good to know that so many other people share this strange hobby, too!