Dumpster Diving: 12 Tips for Finding Treasure in the Trash

Man dumpster diving
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Dumpster diving. Trash picking. Street scavenging. Urban foraging. Skip dipping. Curb shopping. Whatever you call it and wherever you do it, there’s nothing trashy about salvaging someone else’s usable trash. It keeps good pieces out of landfills - and everything is free. But, there may be legal, ethical, and safety issues you haven’t considered. Before you dive in, study these 12 dumpster diving tips:

To keep things simple, I'll just use the term dumpster diving to refer to all types of trash scavenging, unless I'm specifically referring to residential or curbside discards.

1. What is Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, Curb Shopping, etc.?

Dumpster diving and trash picking are terms for searching commercial and construction dumpsters for things you can salvage. When people mention street scavenging and curb shopping, they typically mean taking things from residential garbage, whether bagged and canned or just sitting on the curb. Trash picking and urban foraging can refer to any of the above. 

2. Who Dumpster Dives and Why?

Dumpster divers and curb shoppers are a diverse group. Budget-conscious DIY decorators scavenge for usable furniture and home decorations. Junk artists, people who upcycle, and repurpose salvage things they can use to make new things, both for personal use and to sell at craft fairs and indie markets. Some folks look specifically for scrap metal or aluminum cans they can recycle for cash. Flea market and junk shop dealers who dive look for anything they can sell.

3. Is Dumpster Diving Legal?

The legality of trash picking varies according to where you live. In some places, the garbage is fair game once discarded. In others, taking the trash is considered theft. People may not complain unless you damage property or make a mess, but you are technically trespassing if you enter someone's property to access the dumpster or cans. In my neighborhood, placing furniture and other large pieces on the curb means please take them, but that may not be the case everywhere.

Before you start dumpster diving, learn your local laws (and how strictly they're enforced) and decide what level of legal risk you're willing to take. The safest route is asking for permission before you dig. But, know that some people will say no because they're worried about identity theft or liability if you get hurt -- or just because they're worried you'll leave a mess. 

4. Dumpster Diving Equipment

For most treasure hunting, I recommend putting together a flea market and yard sale tool kit. But, curb shopping and dumpster diving require different, specific equipment:

  • Roll of heavy-duty trash bags
  • Flashlight, ideally the type that straps around your head
  • Pole with a hook or grabber on the end
  • Step stool or sturdy milk crate you can stand on
  • Furniture blankets to keep your vehicle clean
  • Anti-bacterial hand sanitizer or wipes
  • First aid kit, just in case

In addition to your equipment, take your cell phone - and make sure it's fully charged. Keep it on your body in a secure pocket. Should a dumpster lid slam shut and leave you stuck inside, you can't call 911 for a rescue if you leave your phone in your car.

5. What to Wear Dumpster Diving

Fashion doesn't matter when you're digging through someone's trash. Wear old clothes you don't mind ruining or cover your duds with a pair of coveralls. Wear enclosed shoes or boots with a non-slip sole. Before you dig, slip on a pair of work gloves thick enough to protect your hands from a stray syringe, nails, or shards of broken glass. If you're digging through dusty construction dumpsters, protect your respiratory system with a dust mask.

6. How to Act When Dumpster Diving

If you act like you're doing something wrong, people assume you are. So, try not to look like you're sneaking. But, don't call unnecessary attention to yourself either. Stay fairly quiet and try not to bang things around. And, make sure you don't shine your flashlight in residential windows or at oncoming cars.

7. Dumpster Diving Don'ts

  • Don't make a mess. At best, you may find the dumpster locked during your next excursion. At worst, the owner may confront you or call the police -- and you and your license plate might be recorded by a security camera. If you take things out of the trash to get to something else, put them back in before you leave. If you rip open a trash bag to salvage something inside, tie it back up or double bag it with one of the trash bags you brought.
  • Don't put any part of your body inside a trash compactor. There is no prize worth the risk. 
  • Don't break the lock on a locked dumpster. 
  • Don't climb a fence or force a gate to access enclosed cans or dumpsters.
  • Don't enter a property or dumpster, even if unlocked, if you see "No Trespassing" or any other signage forbidding it.
  • Don't step or stick your hand in places you can't see. There could be broken glass, medical waste, spilled chemicals, or rodents lurking beneath those bags.
  • Don't actually get inside the dumpster if you can avoid it unless it's the walk-in construction type and you can see the contents clearly. Use your pole instead.
  • Don't block traffic or driveways while you're poking through residential trash or taking things from the curb.

8. When and Where to Go

Construction / Remodeling Dumpsters: Go in the early evening after the day's work ends or early in the morning before the work begins.

Retail Dumpsters: Go early in the morning before the employees arrive or in the evening after the store closes. You'll usually find the most when stores remodel or go out of business for good.

Apartment Complex Dumpsters: Go in the early morning before residents leave for work or late in the evening when most have gone to bed. You'll find the best stuff at the end of the month when people are moving out.

University Area Dumpsters, Cans, and Curbs: Go early in the morning before students leave for classes or late, late at night after the wildest party ends. With cans and curbs, the night before the garbage truck runs is the best time of the week. For all university area trash picking, you'll find the most at each semester's end. 

Residential Neighborhood Curbs and Cans: Go in the evening before the day the trash is scheduled to be picked up. Late night is best to avoid homeowners, runners, and dog walkers.

Keep an eye for curbside and sidewalk salvage whenever you're out and about. You never know when someone might decide to toss out something good.

9. What to Look For When Dumpster Diving

  • Architectural salvage
  • Furniture, household goods, and home decorations
  • Clothing and fashion accessories
  • Store fixtures and displays
  • New old stock, new stock in damaged packaging, and returns
  • Lawn equipment and decorations
  • Books and magazines 
  • Vinyl records, CDs, and DVDs. 

10. What Not to Take Home

Though numerous respectable dumpster divers and organizations will disagree with me, I can't in good conscience recommend consuming food or drink you find in the trash. Avoid both topical and ingestible medications also, even if they're over-the-counter types and completely sealed. Be cautious of beauty products (makeup, lotions, etc.) as well.

Avoid used mattresses, no matter how nice they seem. The older ones are full of shed skin and bodily fluids. If they're too nice and new to be in the trash, they may be infested with bed bugs. You should, in fact, check all discarded upholstery for evidence of both fleas and bedbugs. And, leave the piece in the trash if it stinks or feels wet. Even if the wet is just water, it may lead to mold and mildew.

11. Things to Consider 

Before you drag your salvaged trash home, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I need this?
  • Do I really want this, or am I just taking it because it's free?
  • Will I use this?
  • If I plan to sell it, will I really do it?
  • If I have to fix or repurpose it, will I get around to it in a timely fashion? Or will it sit in the garage with the other unfinished projects until the end of time?

If you can't answer yes to every applicable question, leave that find behind for someone else. Think of it as good garbage karma. 

12. What to Do If You're Confronted

If you're confronted by the property owner or the police, explain that you're looking for usable discards (as opposed to financial records). If it's the police, apologize sincerely and ask if you can leave. If it's the property owner, assure him that you won't leave a mess and ask if you can continue. If he's not okay with that, apologize sincerely and just go -- ideally before he gets around to calling the police. Don't argue or smart off in either case.