Garbage day was an adventure when I was a kid. My brothers and I roamed the streets poking through trash to pull out the good stuff before the trucks came and took it all away. We brought home a good bicycle, a radio, books, and many other valuables.
As an adult my garbage picking or dumpster diving forays are less frequent, but more profitable. I’ve salvaged and sold chairs, tables, tools, boxes of floor tiles, scrap metal, and more.
You too might like the treasure hunting aspect of garbage picking. Of course, like me, you might not be ready to crawl all the way inside those dumpsters. In that case you can still make some cash on the easy pickings
But how much could you make if you really commit?
Consider Matt Malone, a pro dumpster diver. Although he does it part-time (he has a six-figure day job) he makes thousands of dollars from high-end items thrown out by retail stores in the Austin, Texas area. He says that if he worked at it full time could make $250,000 per year.
Whether you hope to make a living at it or just have some fun, this is your guide to how to make money dumpster diving and garbage picking. But first, just to get your mind into treasure hunting mode, here are a few examples of things that have been found in the garbage:
- $1 Million Lottery Ticket – Found in the trash by Edward St. John (he gave $140,000 of it to a family that claimed to have originally bought the ticket)
- “New Moon” Script – Casey Ray found the “Twilight” sequel script in a garbage can in Hollywood, while the movie was still being made
- Plutonium – Enough for a bomb was found by workers cleaning up a garbage dump
- $1 Million Painting – Found in the garbage by Elizabeth Gibson while taking her morning walk
- $100,000 Cash – Found by highway workers while cleaning up roadside trash
- Wedding Ring – Recovered from a New Jersey dump
- $45,000 Drawing – By artist Delacroix; found in the trash and returned it to the Louvre in Paris
- Freedom Tower Blueprints – A homeless man discovered the confidential blueprints in a trash can
- Important Laptop – Found in trash complete with secret emails used to prosecute a Goldman Sachs trader for mortgage-securities fraud
Part 1: Strategies
The occasional “big score” like the ones listed above is great if it happens, but for consistent finds you need a strategy. You can try several, but it may make sense to specialize at some point. Here are some possibilities…
Cleanup Day Scavenging
Some salvagers focus on cleanup days held in communities across the country. When I lived in Michigan our town had a spring cleanup and you could put just about anything out by the curb for pickup. Every year a small army of scavengers would appear with their trucks and trailers, to pick through the treasures.
Another example is cleanup week in Winnetka, a town near Chicago. That one has been in the news because of all the scavengers that descend on the town each year.
It’s easy enough to find these events. Google “spring cleanup” a few dozen times, adding the name a of a nearby city to each search.
With this strategy you’ll get many large, low-value items like furniture and old bicycles. That means you need a truck or van or trailer. It also means driving around, which can burn up a lot of gas.
A similar strategy is to find an event where people bring their trash to a designated location. I lived for a couple years in a town that did their annual clean-up this way. Residents could bring anything and it would be tossed into one of the waiting garbage truck/compactors.
At the designated collection point there was a man who pulled aside all the bicycles. He usually got about 60 to 80 of them and, after fixing them, he sold them out of his front yard for $10 to $100 each.
An obvious advantage here is that you don’t have to drive around. Unfortunately not all garbage departments will let you to pick through the things people bring to the collection area.
A “stooper” collects horse race tickets from the garbage and the ground, because people regularly throw away winning tickets by accident. Jesus Leonardo does his stooping at racetracks in New York, running the tickets through through a scanner to check them. He finds about $45,000 in winning tickets annually — for a total of almost $500,000 over the years.
Dorm Dumpster Diving
Martin Gregory says, “”I’m a professional scavenger and entrepreneur making a living selling curbside garbage.” One strategy he has used is to search the trash just as students are moving out of their university dorms. A recent foray netted him “a working MacBook Pro, and iPad, a couple of valuable perfumes…” and even currency.
Store Dumpster Diving
As mentioned, digging through the dumpsters behind stroes is what works for Matt Malone. You might try several types of stores, and on different days, to see when the best stuff is thrown out and where.
There was recently a report that CVS regularly throws out foods that haven’t expired.
Garbage Dump Scavenging
You’re not allowed you to dig for treasures at most garbage dumps. But I’ve talked to a man who got permission from a watchman at a dump. His primary target was scrap metal, from which he made a living.
If you live in a rural area you can also stop and check any informal garbage dumps. But get your tetanus shot and be careful!
Scavenging From the Famous
When Mac Robertson worked for artist Francis Bacon as an electrician in the 1970s, he salvaged (with permission) paintings, letters, photographs, and other items from Bacon’s garbage. In 2007 he auctioned off these treasures for 965,490 euros, which at that time was the equivalent of $1.5 million.
This certainly suggest some profit potential in digging through the trash of famous people, if there happen to be any near you.
Curbside Garbage Picking
Perhaps the simplest (but less profitable) strategy is to use garbage day as an exercise day. Take a walk and cherry-pick a few valuables as you pass people’s trash.
Often, if an item is larger or has some value, people will set it on top of or next to their trash containers, essentially inviting you to take it. Otherwise you may have to open the lid and peek inside, which brings us to…
Part 2: The Legality of Dumpster Diving and Garbage Picking
Consumerist explains that in the case “California v. Greenwood” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people have no expectation of privacy once they throw something in the garbage. The ruling clarified that police don’t need a warrant to search trash, but it also has provided an argument for the legality of garbage picking.
That applies to garbage put out for collection, and does not give you the right to trespass. A dumpster near a building, for example, is more of a gray area. If you have to climb a fence to get to it, you’re trespassing.
If you’re uncertain about whether you’re in a gray area of the law, you might want to at least be quiet and unobtrusive. And, if you’re asked to leave, you should do so immediately.
Freegan.info says the police sometimes ticket garbage pickers for littering, which you can avoid by keeping it neat and not throwing stuff out of a dumpster. They police also are known to arrest or ticket garbage pickers for disorderly conduct if they block a sidewalk or refuse to leave a place when asked to do so.
Part 3: Preparation and Organization
If you’re going to do any serious junk-picking set aside a space to store your finds. A corner of a basement or garage should work.
For your “uniform” you want tough clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty, like old jeans and a sweatshirt. If you’re uncomfortable with people’s stares, add a pair of sunglasses and hat to your junk-picking wardrobe, to disguise yourself.
Learn values so you don’t pass up any good finds. Check Craigslist to see what people are paying for various items. Carry a card listing current scrap metal prices so you can quickly determine which things are worth digging out of that dumpster.
Part 4: Selling Your Treasures
To turn that trash into treasure you need to sell it. Here are some of the best options according to the type of stuff you find…
- Craigslist.- Furniture and other large items
- Antique Stores – Old furniture and collectibles
- Consignment Clothing Stores – Brand-name clothing in good condition
- Pawn Shops – Guns, tools, movies
- Rummage Sales – Everything you can’t sell in other ways
- Gazelle – Electronics
- BookScouter – Used books (especially textbooks)
With less-common items you have to find the right buyer to get the best price. To do that think about who would recognize the value of what you have.
For example, when I found 55 unopened bags of golf tees, I might have sold perhaps three or four at a rummage sale for a dollar each, but I remembered that there was a golf supply stall at a local flea market. I was able to sell them there all at once for $40.
The nice thing about dumpster diving or garbage picking is that it’s one of the few businesses where your inventory is free. If you keep your overhead low it’s difficult to lose money selling things that cost you nothing.
If you’ve ever made money from dumpster diving or garbage picking tell us about it, and keep on frugaling!