Dumpster Diving 101: How to Turn Trash to Cash

Dumpster Diving 101 How to Turn Trash to CashThe combination of a tough economy plus a growing awareness of how our modern lifestyles can damage the planet have led many people to seek out more sustainable modes of living. Dumpster diving is one of the more extreme, adventurous and creative approaches to money making ideas. If you can conquer your squeamishness and find some great locations, you can as the cliché says, find treasure in other people’s trash.


People dumpster dive for all sorts of reasons. Some do it because they wish to decrease the impact they have on the earth and its resources; dumpster diving is the ultimate in recycling. Others take it up because they simply can’t afford to buy new items. Creative types enjoy looking for material they use to create “found art,” while entrepreneurs rehab old furniture, toys, and electronics for resale and other money making ideas. Everyone hopes to find something really spectacular–a lost Rembrandt or Bay Psalm Book, anyone? So-called “Freegans” are a world apart; their goal is to live as completely off of found, free items as is humanly possible.


Money Making Ideas: Dumpster Diving

Photo Credit: Mikey Wally

Some places are better dive sites than others. Unless you’re planning to look for unused foodstuffs, stay away from restaurants and groceries. Popular dumpsters include:

  • Apartment complexes, particularly around move-out/move-in time, around the first of the month.
  • Student dorms, rental neighborhoods and apartments, particularly in the spring, when they realize there’s no way all that stuff will fit into their cars.
  • Electronics, cell phone, and “gadget” stores. Tales abound of exciting finds, such as smart cards, slightly damaged exercise equipment, and fancy massaging recliners with ripped leather seats.
  • Bookstores, for discarded magazines, books (with the covers torn off), and tchotchkes. These can be a boon for the impoverished hobbyist. My roommate once brought me a sack-load of Civil War-related periodicals. I am more into the Revolutionary period, but it was the thought that counted.
  • “Big Box” stores. A big box may, in fact, be required.
  • Industrial supply and hardware retailers–great places to find metal materials you can sell for cash

These sites are well-known favorites. However, any retail dumpster can be a gold mine if you happen to explore it at the right time. Remember, too, that dumpster diving is not, in fact, limited to dumpsters. Curbside trash can also be the source of many useful finds, from usable furniture, rugs, and baby items to sports and exercise equipment and plumbing. Just ask the owner; most people don’t mind if you take home their old toilet or tricycle to use for your money making ideas.

What Next?

So, what do you do with your treasures-in-the-raw? First thing would be to wash/clean them thoroughly, of course! Copper and aluminum materials (including copper stripped from old wiring) can be sold to recycling facilities. Old bikes can be repaired, refurbished, and sold. Furniture can be used as is, or refinished, reupholstered, and sold on Craigslist or other online sites; if you’re very good, you can set up an eBay store and earn ask well above “thrift store” prices. As most of the printed material you find will have been stripped of their covers, you can’t really resell it. However, after you read those books and magazines, they can be taken to recycling bins where they can be properly disposed of. Sell items you can’t use on EBay, at flea markets, in consignment stores, and to returning college students, who now wish they’d kept their carpet remnants and dorm fridges. There really is no limit to what you can do with the right items and some creativity – you may even be able to make a name for yourself by making (and selling) art from what you find in the trash.

Caveat Pabulator! Forager Beware!

Want to give dumpster diving a try? Here are some important things to remember:

  • Make sure it’s legal: In most areas, dumpster diving is permitted. However, it’s wise to make sure that this is the case in your particular community. Even if it is legal where you live, don’t be surprised if you find yourself explaining your activities to the cops, particularly if you go diving at night. Do not explore dumpsters which are fenced-in, or otherwise enclosed. Don’t jump fences to go diving in industrial areas; these companies often hire private security or, more dangerously, keep watch dogs.  And if you encounter personal data of any kind, leave it alone; taking it is illegal.  If this information has been improperly disposed of, notify the authorities.
  • Don’t Go Diving Alone: Just as you shouldn’t venture into the ocean alone, don’t dumpster dive solo. Too many things can go wrong, from being accosted by “unsavory characters” to falling in and injuring yourself.
  • Wear Protective Clothing: No matter what the weather, dumpster diving is not something you do in shorts and sandals. Wear jeans, long sleeves, heavy shoes (hiking boots are ideal), and gloves to protect yourself from trash, glass, and general filth. Don’t wear any item of clothing that you might describe as “my favorite.”  Bring along a long stick with a hook for “fishing around,” as well as bags or boxes to pack up your finds.
  • Be Overly Cautious Regarding Your Personal Health: Dumpster divers come into contact with all sorts of dangerous and unimaginably nasty items. Make sure your tetanus booster is up to date, carry hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes, and be sure to wash your clothing and yourself in hot water with strong soaps. As mentioned above, wear gloves and don’t touch your eyes, mouth, or any other part of your face.
  • Don’t Go There! Avoid dumpsters which may contain hazardous or medical waste. A needle stick could ruin your life, literally.
  • Don’t Pollute! Just because you’re rooting through trash, it doesn’t mean that you have to be trashy. Don’t leave a mess. Put the things you don’t need back into the dumpster. Even the most tolerant merchants will lock up their bins if they continually come to work to find litter strewn all around.

Whether you want to live the ultimate green lifestyle, enjoy the thrill of the hunt, want to create money making ideas out of nothing, or just need some extra help getting by, join the thousands of other people who find value in others’ rubbish heaps. Dumpster diving: it takes bargain hunting to a whole new extreme level!


Like this post? Receive free updates directly in your feed reader or email.
And please share freely!


  1. Hey Sam,

    Great article! I am looking for people that actually do this and are trying to make money by dumpster diving…any help or information would be awesome!

    • Sam Baker says:

      I second that, Kyle!

      Hey all, here is an open invitation! if any of you have ever restored something that you picked out of a dumpster, and made money selling it, I would love to hear (and publish) your story!


  1. […] This is the dumpster diving post right here. […]

Leave a Reply to kyle Cancel reply