The stereotype of dumpster diving is all wrong

Dumpster Diving with Panache

by Debra L. Karplus

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Dumpster diving always gets a bad rap. People envision a funky smelling, unshaven man in a way-too-large overcoat, pockets stuffed with who-knows-what, climbing inside a stinky dumpster behind the grocery in a rough neighborhood, lurking during the darkest night hours. But a person doesn't really require a dumpster, nor do they need any expertise in diving. One can discover some incredible finds while keeping both feet firmly on the ground. And the good news is that you can maintain your style and grace or panache, as the French call it, while collecting unexpected valuable treasures.

You've heard the expression "one person's trash is another person's treasure." Any astute bargain hunter knows that to stretch the dollar, you sometimes have to be a bit of a contrarian, going against the crowd. Keep this in mind because deals of all kinds await you in some unlikely places.

Know the law.

The first thing you need to know, before you delve into the dumpster diving arena, is your local laws, regarding what's okay to take. Different municipalities have their own way of defining what's public versus private property. You never want to be caught trespassing or, worse, stealing. Ignorance is never an excuse for being unlawful in anything you do. You must learn what your local ordinance defines as legal and, more important, illegal.

Be healthy to be wealthy.

As a scavenger, you never know when and where you might find discarded valuables that you want to bring home. Your own health and safety should always be the number one priority. Be sure to keep appropriate work gloves and hard thick-soled shoes for the unexpected collection stop. And don't even consider moving anything that's heavier or bulkier than your body can safely handle. A lifetime of back pain is simply not worth it!

Find free or cheap food.

Visit your local farmer's market near closing time. Most vendors are ready to pack up their truck or van and head back to the farm. Negotiate a deal on some of their leftovers, such as that tub of not-so-beautiful peaches. At home, cut them up and put them in yogurt, or bake them in a pie.

Your favorite supermarket may not be able to giveaway expired or discarded food so stay out of their outdoor garbage area; that's often considered to be illegal. But most stores have a section inside the produce department selling foods that are past their prime, such as brown bananas, which are great for making healthy milk shakes or banana bread, or vegetables that make tasty stir fry dishes. Bakeries are another place to find deals. Many people don't want day-old baked goods, but the reality is that if you're not planning to gobble down an entire loaf or pack of muffins on shopping day, then all bakery items essentially become day old or older.

Scavenge for other free stuff.

As you learn to scavenge for free stuff, you'll begin to see a pattern of specific places that have better-than-average discards. One woman found a nearly-new file cabinet, a functioning power lawn mower, and a backyard bench near the dumpster of the popular recreation center. The sign said "free," so she loaded them into back of her minivan.

Enjoy garage sale shopping? Often there's a bin near the street with some free stuff. Don't be a snob; some of this might be just what you're looking for. And when the sale is soon to end, stop back for reduced-price or additional free finds. Often, you'll find a pile or box of goodies on the parkway of someone's house. Probably it's free; if in doubt, always ask first.

Related: 7 Great Alternatives to Selling Stuff on eBay

There are other places worth mentioning that may have free stuff you can use. Neighborhoods with rental units, especially in college towns where students move in and out of apartments each semester, have perfectly good items in the trash. Need a small piece of wood or lumber for a project or home repair? Visit your home improvement store or lumber yard and ask if they can give you some wood scraps. Your nearby high school shop class may also have scraps to give away. The recycle bin at school or work may hold some finds such as notebooks, file folders, and scratch paper. If your community has a landscape recycling center, it's possible that they have wood chips or other usable scraps for you.

Keep a note pad, pencil, and tape measure with you always, in case you encounter a find that requires a larger vehicle for hauling or a second person to help with lifting. You might need to need to record the address or its dimensions. Treasures abound for those who pay attention. You just have to look.

Debra is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She also writes for Grand Magazine, has some items (fiction and non fiction) selling on (kindle), has written several travel articles for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette and several articles for and volunteers as a money mentor for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension money mentoring program. Learn more about her at

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