How to Score Deals by Dumpster Wading – But Not Dumpster Diving

Photo (cc) by Kamal H.

While house-sitting in – of all places – Anchorage, Alaska, I took my friend’s recyclables over to the transfer station. It’s a small way to help her out.

Turns out it’s a good way to shop too.

Look, a copy of Spider magazine! Oh my gosh – a volume of the Childcraft encyclopedia from the early 1960s. Wouldn’t my nephew love to hear the stories in Spider? Wouldn’t it be retro-cool for my niece the schoolteacher to introduce playground games like “Run Sheep Run”?

Snagged ’em.

Better still: 12- and 24-packs of Coca Cola products. I fished out any that I could reach for the My Coke Rewards points. Each is worth 10 to 20 points a pop (pardon the pun).

Some people are dumpster divers. I’m more of a dumpster wader. I’m not willing to climb in and get dirty or to risk injury. But anything I can reach, I’ll harvest.

Here’s my favorite example…

One night in fall 2005, I was having a hard time doing homework in my poorly lit apartment. The next day, a halogen floor lamp landed in the dumpster outside my window.

Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe it’s true what they say: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

If it’s free, it’s for me

For several years I managed the apartment building in which I live. Among my duties was checking the trash and recycle bins. When residents moved out, the bins frequently filled up with things tenants didn’t want to take along.

A number of those items seemed barely used. Several were still shrink-wrapped. So you bet I scavenged. Canned goods, candles, picture frames, a Seattle-themed Monopoly game, books, a computer keyboard and mouse, bookcases, gift wrap, a freestanding mirror, clothes hangers, and cleaning supplies – they were free and they were for me.

None were dirty or stained. I took only things that were cushioned by other clean items. All came in handy, since I was still setting up housekeeping. My daughter used some of them too.

It was a shame that their owners couldn’t find time (or couldn’t be bothered) to drop off the items at a charity thrift shop. At least three such stores exist within a three-mile radius of the apartment building.

Only once did I get creeped out: When I moved a couple of items aside and saw a departing tenant’s framed family photos. Although the frames were quite nice, I couldn’t bring myself to take them. It would have felt like kidnapping.

But seeing pictures of the woman and her daughter smiling up out of the garbage was disturbing. I wish I knew the story there. Or maybe I don’t.

If you can reach it, it’s yours

Dumpster wading at the recycling center is different. No need to worry about leaking garbage sacks or hidden bags of used cat litter. I’m pulling clean, dry items out of the mixed paper receptacle – and I’m not the only one.

I’ve seen several people rescuing magazines, with titles as varied as Good Housekeeping, InStyle, and Diesel Power. A kindergarten teacher once told me that the recycling bins are a great source for magazines for projects such as “cut out at least three things that start with the letter N.”

I saw other items in the mixed paper bin that could be reused, such as gift bags, manila and accordion folders, decorative boxes, and lots of the paper that moving companies use to wrap breakables. If I were packing my belongings in a rented moving van, I’d check the recycle bins before buying wrapping paper.

I also saw a woman fishing around in the newspaper bin. When she saw me looking she said, a bit defiantly, “I coupon.”

“So do I,” I replied. She relaxed visibly, and smiled.

How can you say no?

I understand why some companies hate dumpster divers. They might make messes. They might get hurt and sue. A few times, I had to ask folks not to climb into bins, or chase away the ones who scanned items and tossed them onto the ground instead of back into the dumpster.

But if they were just pulling out things they could reach, and not wrecking the joint? I didn’t really care. When you see a guy hold up a pair of obviously used boots and yell to his companion, “Man, look at these!” – well, how are you going to tell him he’s not allowed to keep them?

I’d never advise people to climb into a dumpster. Too much can go wrong. Not only are there a lot of really, really bad-smelling things in the trash, there are also hidden hazards like broken glass.

But if you can reach an item easily, you can keep it out of the landfill. You can meet some of your needs frugally. And if you’re really lucky, you can do your homework by it.

More stories from Donna Freedman:

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