"Lack of money is no obstacle. Lack of an idea is an obstacle." - Ken Hakuta

10 Financial Reasons to Trash Trawl

By , August 28th, 2012 | 9 Comments »

trash trawling

I should probably point out right away that the subject of this article isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m sure that the idea of sorting through garbage probably conjures up some awfully nasty visions for some readers. Dumpster diving, sometimes referred to as trash trawling, is becoming more commonplace and even something of a movement. I’ve seen the term “fashionable” used occasionally, but I don’t think I’m prepared to make that connection. Nevertheless, we’re here to discuss saving money and that being the case, trash trawling deserves at least a passing glance.

I also want to note that nothing in this article is intended as a statement about homelessness. As one of the fortunate individuals that haven’t found themselves completely displaced, I don’t pretend to understand the perspective of those who have. This piece intends to provide some food for thought (no pun intended) for the average person looking to improve his or her financial situation, or perhaps the college student that isn’t getting an allowance from Mom and Dad. That said, here are a few reasons readers might want to consider taking the plunge (pun intended):

Putting Food on the Table

Let’s get this one out of the way right away. If you’re not squeamish and you use a little common sense, you can find a surprising amount of perfectly good food in commercial and residential dumpsters. Among the items that present very low risk are produce like potatoes, oranges, apples, etc, that the grocery store has tossed because they aren’t pretty enough to sell. Canned goods and other packaged foods, (wrapped) cheese with spots of mold, unopened bread and a plethora of other foodstuffs are wasted by businesses and individuals on a shocking scale. Obviously, caution, careful inspection and thorough washing should be your practices if you collect food this way.

Furnishing the House

Common finds in or around trash bins include all kinds of furniture. Condition and cleanliness are going to vary, and your sense of taste is going to play a big role. You might be surprised at what you’ll find after someone’s garage sale is over or when a business is remodeling or refurnishing its offices. Be prepared to do some upholstery cleaning and sanitizing and check for bugs.

Decorating the House

Along with furniture, items like picture frames, wall hangings, artwork, light fixtures, and similar articles are routinely thrown away after garage sales and redecorating projects. Some items might need a little spray paint or cleaning and you might need to drive a few screws or use a spot of glue here and there. If you’re a handy person and not ashamed to bring it home from the garbage, you may find some fun items to decorate your home.

Recycling What Others Don’t

I’m not talking about aluminum cans or bottles with redemption value. For the most part, even those who routinely pick through dumpsters for those items rarely make more than a few dollars a day. In defense of that practice, however, it does return recyclable materials to their proper place, so there’s some ecological value. In terms of financial value, though, there are some commonly discarded items that can be sold as scrap metal. Larger pieces of aluminum, like storm door frames, can add up substantially if you have a place to store them for a while. Copper wire, even from household extension cords, can bring you substantial cash at scrap yards, especially if you strip the insulation.

The Occasional Treasure

Every once in a while, a discarded item turns out to be a literal treasure. People unwittingly throw away antiques, historical documents and photos, valuable artwork and even precious gems, especially after rummage sales or spring cleaning. Yes, it’s rare, but unless you’re looking, you won’t be the lucky one to find that truly valuable item that was carelessly tossed.

Free Pets

There’s no good reason, with Humane Society and municipal shelters willing to take them in, but abandoning puppies, kittens or other animals in a box by the dumpsters behind supermarkets or shopping malls is a fairly regular practice. Garbage bins are also a common hangout for lost or stray animals looking for food. Of course, you need to be careful and a checkup and shots will be in order for any animal you find in this situation, but you might end up with a great companion at no other cost.

Free Literature

News stands, book stores, convenience stores and grocery stores often discard unsold books and magazines that can’t practically be returned to the supplier. These don’t always end up in the garbage, since paper is recyclable, but some businesses aren’t quite so conscientious in that respect. Garage sale trash is also another god place to find these items.

Free Greeting Cards

Like books, unsold greeting cards often find their way to the dumpster after holidays and when they’ve been on the shelf too long. This is fairly typical of stationery, too and it’s often found still sealed in the original package.

Free Building Materials

Construction sites and industrial locations often dump an incredible amount of usable building materials. Lumber, steel framing, bags of concrete mix, nails, screws, bolts and other hardware are often discarded simply because the company didn’t want to deal with hauling them back to the shop or because of minor imperfections that may not matter to someone else.

Free Firewood

While you’re looking at construction site dumpsters, don’t forget your fireplace or campfire. Seasoned lumber burns hot, and you’ll find plenty of pieces to suit. Cabinet shops, millworks, lumber yards and other businesses often have separate bins full of free scrap wood.

Words to the Wise

Along with the obvious cautions about poking through the trash, be aware of your local laws governing trash collection, particularly concerning edible products. There’s nothing profitable about jail time or citations. Also, be cautious of property owners who frown on the idea. Never go over fences or through closed gates. Lastly, be sure to always show the utmost respect.

(Photo courtesy of Wei Tchou)

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  • Kathie says:

    Comprehensive yet concise treatment of the subject. I can confirm that I’ve found everything the writer mentions except the discarded pets (thankfully). After housewares (pots, dishes, kitchen utensils), office and school supplies are the most common items I find. Dumped desks, dressers, knapsacks, and briefcases contain pens, pencils, highlighters, paper clips, binders, batteries (some with power left; the others I recycle), empty CD/DVD jewel cases, and pennies.

  • deana says:

    When I was right out of college, I was able to furnish my entire apartment with stuff that I got from people who had left it on the side of the road. It’s amazing what people will throw away, much of it still perfectly good to use.

  • benny says:

    I do this in a more subtle way. I gets free stuff off of Craigslist and Freecycle — basically stuff that would go into the trash, but the people put it up on the Internet so it doesn’t have to. This way I get the free stuff, but I don’t have to go into trash bins to get it.

    • jenny says:

      That is in dumpster diving. I think most people would be willing to get free stuff off of Craigslist and Freecycle, but most people would not be willing to go into the garbage to get something.

  • Jane says:

    I was on my way to the Goodwill one day and saw a pile of perfectly folded blankets sitting next to the trash. I pulled over and loaded them into my car.

    Dropped them off before I started shopping.

    Nice to know I got there before the garbagemen.

    I used to do the same thing when I rented an apt. People would move out and put the nicest things next to the trash. I’d take it to the thrift store.

    I just can’t STAND to see perfectly good merchandise get treated this way.

  • timeout says:

    What is the difference between trash trawling and dumpster diving?

  • sjlrc says:

    I really don’t see the big deal but many people have with reclaiming perfectly usable stuff from the trash. Do they think that it’s beneath them or something along those lines? We waste so much as a nation and throw so much away that is still perfectly usable but I think we should be applauding all those people who are willing to give things that would end up in the landfill new life. Just my two cents…

  • greenday says:

    If you go to visit other countries, you will see that they recycle and use almost everything. Rarely will you see anything that has value not be claimed by somebody that will use it again. I think that we do a poor job of using things that still have life in America. I hope this is something that is changing.


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