I was a young kid, probably ten years old when I experienced dumpster diving for the first time. Mountain Dew was doing a promotion on their website where you could enter codes from bottle caps and redeem the points for unique gifts.
Me, my siblings, and friends all played baseball for most of my childhood, so we were at the ballpark several times a week. During the Mountain Dew promotion, we realized it would be a good idea if we could get more codes by digging around in trash cans for bottles, and that was my first exposure to the world of dumpster diving.
We found less than ten bottles and dug through some pretty gross stuff to get them. It’s funny what you’ll do to pass the time when you’re a kid.
Although I don’t go digging for bottle caps anymore, I have found some perfectly good stuff that others considered trash. I get almost all the boxes I use for my eBay business from dumpsters, and I started the eBay flipping challenge with a dumpster find.
This country has so much waste that some people dumpster dive for a living, full time! Selling stuff I find in the trash is my favorite way to make extra cash by reselling for a couple of reasons. I don’t have to pay anything for the items; it prevents a few things from ending up in the landfill, and whoever I sell them to will get the value from them. Call me weird, but there’s just something satisfying to me about bringing things back to life.
What is Dumpster Diving?
Simply put, dumpster diving is the act of digging through dumpsters and trash cans in search of anything that you can still use or has value. You can find everything from furniture, electronics, building materials, home decor… even food! Care for yesterday’s bagels, anyone?
If you were to look in the dumpster behind any retail store or grocery store, chances are you would find something related to what they sell in that store.
Dumpster divers may look for things to eat, or they may just look for items that they can still use or sell. Part of the fun is you never know what you’re going to find.
Why is dumpster diving even a thing? Shouldn’t everything that’s trash be of no use to anyone? Because we live in a materialistic society, companies and individuals have too much stuff and food waste.
There’s a mentality in the United States that we must always strive for the latest and greatest items for companies to make more money and for individuals to have the status of having the best stuff. It boils down to marketing and FOMO (fear of missing out).
Companies feel like they have to produce new things to grow continually, and they do so by planned obsolescence and advertising to the public to make them feel like they need to buy something continuously so they can stay up to date (also known as social engineering).
Because of this, there are massive amounts of items still in a good condition that are being thrown out every single day. We just don’t have enough room to store all of our new things. It’s a constant cycle of out with the old, in with the new.
Valuable Items to Look for While Dumpster Diving
While you can find lots of food in dumpsters, you probably won’t have any luck trying to sell it. If you find food and have the time, you could look for a local food bank to donate it to so that it won’t go to waste. You could also eat it yourself if you like.
If you’re looking to get into dumpster diving to make money selling what you find, you’ll need to look for things that still have use and that people will pay for. You may have to do some repairs to bring items back to life and make them valuable again.
People throw-away tons of electronics every day, and it is a growing problem for the environment. Because of the toxins found in electronics, when these items end up in landfills, the toxins wind up in the water streams and wreak havoc on the earth.
The good news is that you can prevent electronics from ending up in landfills and make some money in the process! Most electronics that are thrown away can be repaired easily, or you can take them apart and sell the working pieces then recycle what’s leftover.
Clothes are another item that gets discarded in immense quantities. According to research, millions of tons of clothes end up in landfills each year. With styles constantly changing, stores discard plenty of clothes just because they aren’t “fashionable” anymore.
If you find a lot of clothes while out dumpster diving, some of them may be worth a good amount, and if not, you can take them to a thrift store. I love donating items to thrift stores because it keeps them from being thrown away. Most thrift stores are charitable with their profits, and people who can’t afford to buy new clothes can also get nice things.
If you’re handy, you can find a lot of furniture that only needs small repairs, so you can fix them up and sell them for a profit! It may be hard to do this if you don’t have a big vehicle to haul things, but if you can manage it, there’s a lot of potential with discarded furniture. You may even find nicer things than what you’re currently using in your house and upgrade for free.
You can recycle any type of metal, so if you come across it while you’re out dumpster diving, don’t overlook it. Copper is worth a lot of money in large quantities, but aluminum, steel, brass, and other metals are also worth recycling.
You can reuse things like wood and other building materials too since people often throw them into dumpsters. If you collect enough, you can build several projects with the materials you get for free.
Offices often throw away paper, ink cartridges, chairs, desks, and anything else used in a company that moves or goes out of business. The company I work for closed down their office in my state because most of us work remotely. There were several truckloads of things that were discarded!
Appliances are another category that may be hard to haul if you don’t have a truck, but if you can, there’s a lot of money to be made off of any working parts. If you don’t feel like taking appliances apart and selling each piece individually, you can just take them to a local scrap yard like you would with other metals.
If you have a sports equipment store near you, add their dumpster to the list of places to check. From golf equipment to camping supplies, there’s no telling what you might come across that is still worth money.
Did you know that a lot of times, when you return something to a store, it just gets thrown away? Usually, people return things because something is wrong with them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get some money for damaged goods. A lot of times, you’ll find things still work perfectly.
Most people think their old stuff is worthless, and instead of trying to sell or donate, they will just throw their things away. I’ve been following this guy for a while, and it’s amazing to see the amount of interesting vintage stuff he comes across in the trash.
Is Dumpster Diving Illegal?
Although there are some cases where dumpster diving is illegal, it’s legal as long as the trash is in a public place, and there aren’t any no trespassing signs out.
In what states is dumpster diving legal? Here is a general breakdown of the dumpster diving laws in the 50 states:
- Federal law – legal
- State law – legal
- County law – depends on the county.
- City law – depends on the city.
- No trespassing signs or private property – illegal
Overall, when something is in a dumpster or trash can at the end of someone’s driveway, it is public property. That doesn’t mean you won’t get weird looks or have someone from a company come out and tell you to go away. If they confront you, it’s probably best to just move on and not go back to that location before they call law enforcement.
The act of dumpster diving is not necessarily illegal. However, if you use someone’s information for identity theft as a criminal, you’ll experience jail time or a fine.
Best Places to Dumpster Dive
Not all trash is equal, and neither are the places you can find it. Your best bet to find what you’re looking for is to go to a place where that item is sold or manufactured and check out the dumpsters. Common sense is you’re less likely to find old computers behind a restaurant, so start at places that you think are more likely to have what you’re looking for.
Dumpsters behind retail stores are a great place to find good stuff if they don’t have locks or trash compactors.
You may find items that are typically sold in the store or used by the business.
College students are usually in a hurry when they’re moving out and end up throwing away nice things. Find out when the campus move-out date is and be sure to check the dumpsters that week.
You may find anything in the trash from the students or the college uses.
If there is a business park or manufacturing plant in your area, those may be good places to dumpster dive. Just be sure that the dumpster isn’t on private property, and if someone approaches you, move on.
Wealthy people usually own nicer things, so they throw away nicer things as well. If you don’t mind digging through trash cans at the end of people’s driveways, pleasant neighborhoods could be a gold mine. Just prepare yourself to get some weird looks if people are at home during the time you go diving.
If a store is being remodeled, the business may throw away valuable things. Make sure you aren’t parking in the way of workers and be careful not to hurt yourself when handling dangerous materials.
Where to Sell Dumpster Finds
Once you go out there and find some dumpster treasure, you may wonder where the best place to sell your finds is. The best place will depend on what area you’re in and what items you’re selling.
If you’ve been on my blog, you probably know that my favorite online marketplace is eBay. If you’re willing to ship and are selling smaller items that aren’t too heavy, eBay will probably be the best place to sell. You can sell bigger, heavier items, but it may be more of a challenge to figure out how to ship them.
Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace
If you’re selling larger items that you don’t want to ship, Facebook or Craigslist will be your best bet. I would try both of them and see which one works best for you. Depending on the population of your area, it may take a while to sell things locally, but at least you won’t have to deal with all the hassles of shipping and getting paid over the internet.
If you don’t mind spending half a day sitting around trying to sell your stuff, flea markets can also be an excellent place to sell.
The only time I would suggest selling dumpster finds to scrap yards is if you come across a bunch of scrap metal or if you find something like an appliance and don’t want to deal with taking it apart. If you feel like taking appliances apart, you can make a killing selling each piece on eBay. The nice thing about scrap yards is all you have to do is pull up, weigh in, and dump your stuff. You probably won’t get much money, though.
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, dumpster diving can be a fun way to make some money and keep things out of the landfill. Just be careful and make sure you aren’t breaking the law.
Have you ever been a dumpster diver? If so, what did you get, and did you make any money off it?
Nathan has been a personal finance writer since early 2018. He and his wife reached a net worth of one hundred thousand at the age of 25 and are on their way to financial independence. His favorite way to make money is selling things on eBay and has grown his eBay business to earn five figures selling part-time. He loves sharing what he learns about finance and any eBay tips he comes across. If you’re interested in becoming an eBay seller, check out his reseller Facebook group.