Beginner’s Guide to Dumpster Diving

If there was ever a mantra from the Great Depression, it was “Waste not want not.” If there was ever another time that the statement holds just as true, it’s now.

Photo: inhisgrace

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and in my youth there were one or two days a year for “Big Trash Pickup.” The entire town put bulky items that weren’t worth holding onto out on the curb; the wilier citizens were free to comb through the discarded belongings before the garbage men picked them up.

This is how my trash picking began.

It was a family affair and I was always terrified that I would be seen with my mom or dad prowling around the front of a classmate’s house in broad daylight. I would torture myself imagining scenarios in which I was spotted by a more popular fifth grader rifling through her family’s discards and the ensuing outing in which I was teased mercilessly for being a trash-picker.

Thankfully, this never happened.

Still, it was hard not to get excited over a wooden swing in the shape of an airplane or a bag of Barbie dolls that had seen better days. Furniture, toys, obsolete electronics, records, sports equipment– the price was right. We had a huge Chevy Suburban replete with unfinished bodywork that left the sides peppered with sanded down patches of red and grey Bondo– never was there a better truck for loading with trash.

Over the years I have found so many great things. I’ve sold some, eaten some, made art out of some, furnished with some and thrown some back where they came from.

Photo: drb62

In the current economic climate, perhaps you’re thinking of making a foray into the world of trash picking and dumpster diving. It can be a rewarding activity, but it has its pitfalls. Caution is in order and it’s not for the squeamish. You want to be safe and you want not to get caught.

In certain places you could be seen as trespassing or even stealing. Chances are you won’t go to jail, but it’s an activity best done under cover of night and it might be advisable not to blast Judas Priest from the stereo speakers in your old beater to rock out while you dive.

Low key is key.

What Will You Need?

You don’t really need anything. The following items are recommended. The more stars they have, the more recommended they are.

  • ***No Arrest Warrants
  • ***Good Boots with a Non-Skid Sole
  • ***Trash Bag
  • ***Flashlight
  • **Gardening Gloves (rubber fingertips grip and protect)
  • **A Vehicle
  • *A Co-Diver
  • *Dark Clothes
How Do You Get Started?

Do drive bys or walk bys. Run reconnaissance and see where dumpsters are unlocked. You can do this during the day. Groceries throw out food and produce that are still good. Stores change stock and dump out of date merchandise. Dare to dream and have a look behind stores you wish you could shop at more.

Photo: star5112

Don’t exclude thrift stores. Sometimes really cool stuff can be found– I once found a Coach handbag in the dumpster behind a thrift store (not that that’s cool, but it fetches a nice price on e-Bay).

Dive when the store is closed and it’s dark out. Park your car away from the dumpster and approach on foot. Be practical. Wear dark clothes and be quiet. It’s a good idea to wear gloves and jeans and heavy shoes or boots. You want to keep in mind that you could stick your hand in anything (putrid, hazardous) or step on something sharp (glass, nails, needles). Use a flashlight as needed and don’t go shining it up out of the dumpster like your own personal laser light show.

If the dumpster looks promising, go ahead and get in. Piles of trash tend to have all sorts of weird angles and slippery things that are buried. If you aren’t careful, it’s very easy to fall down. Grab the side until you’ve gotten your sea legs. Arm yourself with a trash bag and collect your finds.

When you’re done, peep out of the rim of the dumpster: if everything looks okay, pass the goods to your friend or get yourself out and pull the haul out after yourself. Nonchalantly return to your vehicle or walk away with your scores.

If you get to be a pro, you might start to learn that your favorite grocery turns over its produce on Wednesdays and the knick-knack shop you adore rotates its inventory on the third Saturday of every month. If you pull a great score one day, make a note of the day of the week and the month and see if you have time to follow up on your intuition that similar goods will be on offer the same time next week or month.

If you find that you can’t possibly use the 20 heads of arugula you found but don’t want to leave them rotting there, consider taking them to a soup kitchen. Everyone’s being hit by this downturn. Good luck.

Community Connection:

Feeling the pinch of the economic crisis but not feeling like trying dumpster diving? Read about ways the financial crisis can improve your life here. Or if you’re traveling and need to make some quick money, here are 25 ideas to get you started.

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  • The Link

    If you wait until nightfall,the best goods may be already gone!

  • admin

    Right after I read this article, I was walking down the street in Manhattan and saw a brand new pair of gold heels, still in their box, sitting on top of a pile of trash. NYC is hands-down the best place in the world for dumpster diving–and you don’t even have to get in a dumpster! I’ve brought home incredible hauls (and have even had to rent a U-haul) to bring home a couple pieces of solid wood furniture I found in a pile in Brooklyn.

  • Carlo Alcos

    Great and timely post! Although I’ve never dumpster dove, I have been known to pick up curbside items (set of 4 chairs for the courtyard was the latest). I reckon a good tip during spring cleaning time would be to head to upscale neighbourhoods. Those richies are always upgrading and tossing perfectly good things out.

    This is also a service to the environment – less things in the dump. Good ol’ fashioned recycling!

  • Julie

    Another great place/time to dumpster dive is at the end of every month in big cities (move out time) and at the end of the college school year. College students who have no will or way to move things like mini fridges, futons, and TVs just throw them in the college dumpsters.

    • D Wheeler

      I loved your article. I was a bit concerned about picking stuff up off the curb! I’ve done this numerous times and never dreamed I could go to jail because it belonged to the city!

      I have found some new mattresses behind mattress stores that have thrown them out just because they got a tear in the mattress during shipment!

  • Kate

    Wow! Keep all these tips coming. The pickin’s are a little slim here. You guys are making me insanely jealous.

  • T.J. Anderson

    Agreed Julie, the end of semesters is a great time to dumpster dive, so many freshman overpack there first year, and it’s usually new stuff. Also couches and mattresses are in abundance, even if you don’t trust them well enough to bring them inside your house, they can be awesome lawn furniture or used to build a fort in your neighbors lawn while he’s not looking.

    Right now a lot of people are spring cleaning, and craigslist and dumpsters as well as thrift stores will be riff with all kinds of goodies. I volunteer at a community thrift store and have been told to throw away books, chairs and all kinds of other things on a regular basis. If it doesn’t sell then it is more cost effective to throw it away, than to give it away, because then no one would buy the new used stuff.

  • http://MatadoreLife Lucianne

    Hey! I don’t know if that is the cool thing to say now or not but here goes, my first blog or is this considered one? The original Bag Lady speaks of her adventures inside”” of the dumpster. I have had great times looking, finding and grabing my treasures. Knowing the times and places to hit are a daytime observation. You are right, hig- end neighborhoods, school closings, college dorms not to mention end of season merchandise is thrown out at your favorite department stores. I find great joy in finding usefull objects that can be mended easily and used for me as well as friends and people in need.

  • Greg

    In the little town we live in (High River, Alberta) there is a local dump with what is called the ‘reuseit center’ Everything use to be free there – take what you want, leave what is too good for be tossed. It became very popular with the local Hutterite colony and many others to the point where there are now volunteers and everything has a very modest price. When the oil boom was on a couple years back, the stuff you could find was incredible. I think my greatest find there was a 7×14 landscaping trailer (cost me $200) but what a great way to keep stuff out of the landfill.

  • Nunuv Yerbiznezz

    When I lived in Chicago in the ’90s, an ongoing problem was turf wars over diving territory. The problem got so bad that the police had to start making crackdowns. I lived in a second-floor apartment with a window overlooking the building’s bin. Some bum used to wake me up around three or four every morning with his rooting around. One morning I waited for him, and when he was busy digging I dropped a large firecracker in the other end of the dumpster. He never came back and I was able to get a full nights’ sleep once again.

    • Chris.

      Way to be cruel to another human being and eliminate one of the places he could find sustenance. Karmically, it might have been cheaper to invest in ear plugs.

  • Kyle

    Local bakeries are bountiful for dumpster diving. They throw out fantastic blends of fresh and diverse baked goods (usually types of breads rather than pastries.) You can strike oil and stock up the fridge for weeks. Good luck.



  • roll off dumpster rental

    Best time to do it, hand down, is moving season around colleges. Wouldn’t believe some of the stuff college kids throw away. It’s like fish in a barrell.

  • Caroline

    In Manhattan East 23rd St has the best thrift stores. You can cover them all in less than half an hour. Brand new looking books at some; furniture at another; and samples at yet a third. A sample sale has goods ahead of season often. So you are in the know…ahead of time! And you can always get a zipper replaced! I’m on my third season with a sample name brand leather 3/4 jacket that intimidated women because they had used too small a zipper. So I had it replaced, the lining fixed that had worn out from my use and now I can get a 3rd year out of it.

  • Elena

    One of my favourite past times. I found my fish tank, bed, and book shelf all out of a dumpster. As well as many many books. Luckily in Alberta (not sure about the rest of Canada) once an item is in the garbage and place out for pick up, it is up for grabs and no longer anyones property.

  • Christina

    I wrote a story for Sierra Magazine a few years ago on my Dumpster diving experiences. Since then it has gotten harder and harder to find places to dive. Most trash bins are enclosed and well lit. If you can find a good place, grab it!

  • Will

    few weeks ago i read a story in Yahoo that a man in NYC took an a/c from the trash left on the curb… the owner told him to take it, but the police said it was on the curd and therefor the city owned it and took him to jail with a fine of 2,000 and the inbound of his truck. in SF you can also be held for 3 days( this done not include weekends , as they are not really days, ask the court!) so your could get stuck for 5 days. the trash in sf is some of the best I have ever seen and I am not a diver at all!

  • A

    Watch out for bedbugs especially in furniture … those things are everywhere.

  • Chris

    Hey, great article. Keep diving.

  • D Wheeler

    I took a friend diving with us one night. She was afraid of being arrested. We were behind a parts store in a strip mall when the police came up doing their rounds. She was scared to death, I just told her not to worry, that we weren’t doing anything wrong. Well, we were pulled over. The officer asked for my license, but before he looked at it, he asked what we were doing behind the stores. When I told him sheepishly, “dumpster diving”, he just laughed and handed my license back and let us go.

    • Matthew

      I’m surprised you were approached by a policeman. You’d think by now it would be obvious what you were doing in the dumpster.

      I’ve gotten smart about my diving, and for the most part (especially if it’s a store or business I’m diving), I both save it for the weekend and do it before 12 AM. Most businesses are closed on the weekends, and if it’s a store, you can still get there before they open to pick.

      I’ve found some great stuff in the dumpsters – the best being over 200 T-Shirts that were destined for a hipster mall clothing store. They came from the screen printing company across the street from where I work. I was able to move all the ones I posted on the Free eBay (see the link in my name) very easily. The rest are in a container, and I’ll likely sell them at a Yard Sale or post them on that site as well.

      Mostly, I’ve moved toward just collecting scrap metal at this point, as well as Coke product caps and boxes. Easy to make a profit off of that, and the Coke gets me free Cokes and/or free T-Shirts :)

      I always have my eyes open for a good construction dumpster (not to mention store closing sales which always lead to full dumpsters of amazing product they couldn’t sell). Wish someone would create a site that tracked them all :D

  • scott

    Great article. I’d never dumpster dive for furniture these days, considering the bed bug epidemic sweeping across big cities. Groceries are a different matter. I’ve been meaning to give it a try but haven’t yet found the nerve.

  • Aleta

    I like how much activity has arose from this topic.
    When “WWOOF”-ing (world wide opps on organic farms) in Spain, I had my first dumpster diving experience. We walked to a nearby town and raked through the local grocery store’s dumpsters, they called it “food rescue”. Although I was a bit weary at first, we returned to the farm pretty pleased with ourselves with several perfectly good loaves of bread to share with the others.
    One man’s treasure…

  • Tatianna Vassilopoulos

    Calling all freegans or those considering it! Can you please complete either a multiple choice survey takes less than 7 minutes OR an under 5 minute short answer questionnaire The purpose of this survey is to educate Florida Atlantic University’s graduate class Food: Environments and Culture class about freeganism. Your answers will remain anonymous and confidential. The results will be compiled into large statistically representations, unless otherwise noted by you in with written consent at the designated final box stating that you want to be used as a specific example. At the end of the survey there is also an optional elective to request a follow up interview which should last between 30 minutes to an hour depending on your availability. Feel free to skip any questions you feel uncomfortable answering, you can always save and continue later, and you can submit without finishing if need be. Thank you in advance for your participation in my project. I really appreciate it!