MWF Seeks Dumpster Discards – Must Be Clean

by Katy on October 6, 2009 · 17 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published column. Enjoy!

Have you ever been embarrassed by an outfit your mother wore? Picture that outfit, but now imagine your mother climbing ass-over-teakettle into a dumpster outside the coolest department store in your town. That outfit suddenly doesn’t seem as embarrassing as before, does it?

My mother was a dumpster diver before it was cool, before it was called being a “Freegan.” There was no Oprah show lending its legitimacy, just mom climbing into dumpsters looking for carpet scraps and whatever else. Oh, sweet mortification! It didn’t matter to my teenage self that that she would pull out rolls of used carpet to take home, shampoo and re-sell for $250. To me it was agony, pure and simple.

Okay, 25 years have passed since the “carpet outside the downtown Meier & Frank” episode, and I’ve now got a bit of that mother in me. Perhaps I’m more of a genteel dumpster diver though. Ambling slowly through the neighborhood in my hoop skirt, parasol in hand. Bowing into a deep curtsy to pick up whatever it is that strikes my fancy.

A stack of terra cotta flower pots? Yes please.

I’ve even turned my 14-year-old son onto the family career. A couple of months ago I noticed a neighbor had put out a tubular metal “Papasan” style chair with satin asian-style fabric. The seams had split in a few places, but otherwise it looked to be in perfect condition. Hmm. . .  I’d been looking out for a reading chair for my son’s room.

I ran home and brought him back with me, so he could make the decision of whether or not he liked the chair. “Cool mom!” was his immediate response, and he and I together schlepped it back to the house. I took out a needle and thread and it was soon as good as new. He now sprawls across it nightly, library manga books scattered at his feet.

Other items I’ve brought home have been:

  • Great ventilated pizza pan.
  • Darling wooden bench that looks very cute with a plant on it.
  • Many different plants people have divided.
  • Large paver stone.
  • Perfect Swiffer.
  • Bricks for a soon-to-be-built backyard patio.
Am I embarrassed to be bringing home other people’s garbage? Absolutely not! I just wish I could go back in time to make a quick $250 myself. Barring that, I’m going to continue eyeing strangers’ trash piles. You never know what you’re going to find.
Are you a dumpster diver or free pile spelunker? Please share your stories in the comments section below.
Katy Wolk-Stanley
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Loretta October 7, 2009 at 1:28 am

Oooh yeah, baby! I’ve also taken after my mother, who was constantly poking around in the neighbours’ junk when it was hard rubbish collection time. I’ve picked up heaps of useful stuff off the nature strip, but my latest find wasn’t successful: a warped desk for my daughter’s room. It was just not worth the time and effort to fix it up, so it’s now sitting on my nature strip waiting for another sucker 🙂


Jinger October 7, 2009 at 5:32 am

I have found some fabulous items next to our apartment community dumpsters. One is a Craftsman style table lamp that needed just a bit of Super Glue to bring back to life. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure!


Kat October 7, 2009 at 7:33 am

Large trash collection day in my neighborhood is a scavenger’s dream. Most things get picked up before the truck comes by. I’m always on the lookout for crates and baskets.


fairydust October 7, 2009 at 7:38 am

I don’t do it as much as the inner me would like (I’m too worried about getting yelled at), but I have casually strolled past move-out garbage piles in the neighborhood and picked up some lovely items like a perfect-condition Pfaltzgraff coffee mug and rolls of unused tape. I have dumpster dived (dove? 🙂 ) only once, and that was sanctioned by the company tossing stuff into their dumpster. DH got some great plastic foam-lined carrying cases that he uses for all sorts of things now like band gear. I admit it was fun!


Meredith October 7, 2009 at 8:00 am

Hey, I just did the same thing this morning! I moved into my apartment complex two weeks ago and it seems that people here dump some perfectly good things beside the trash compactor. Driving by this morning I saw a very dirty but fully functional oscillating floor fan just sitting there, and I snagged it. My boyfriend and I were just talking about buying the same thing this past weekend! Last week I got 4 perfectly good glasses and a litter box for the new kitten I’m wanting. Everything needs a good washing, but personally, I get great satisfaction out of cleaning something up and making it good as new. Not only is it free, but being resourceful and less wasteful makes me feel great as well. 🙂


Charlotte October 7, 2009 at 11:22 am

When we lived in NYC we found a pump organ from the 1980’s on the street, put out for the trash. My husband and I snatched it up and to this day I look at garbage.


Lisa October 7, 2009 at 12:54 pm

I’ve been a forager since I was a kid. Before we had a garbage pickup, people hauled their trash to a local dump. Whenever dad would go to haul our stuff off, I would beg to go along. We would almost always find something usable, fixable, or of value to bring back with us. No shame here!


James October 7, 2009 at 4:39 pm

How about over $100 worth of quart (and widemouth pint) canning jars. Most last used in 1978!

My wife and I were out walking the neighborhood, and a lady had put them out in her recycling bins. I went back home and got the car, brought it around and we picked up every one we could get. The lady saw us out there, came out of her house and asked if we wanted the rest of them, and brought over 6 more dozen.

I figure we scored 12+ dozen. And there were 3 of the blue glass jars also, that are antiques! Super score!


Jeanne October 8, 2009 at 4:44 am

I’ve never dumpster dived, but in our old Long Island neighborhood, we picked up many treasures on trash night. The list includes: many books, a set of Japanese-style vases (all in perfect condition), a table that turned out to be circa 1910 but needed refinishing, a floor lamp, two large fans (one needed a new plug; Hubby did it himself), a collection of beautiful ring boxes, picture frames, and two almost-complete sets of dishes which I love. The sampler in my bedroom is a big, expensive kit that someone started and threw out – I love to cross stitch, so Hubby snagged the kit from someone’s evening trash. He framed it himself. My husband would walk the dog at night and bring back treasures. It is amazing what you can find.


Crunchy October 8, 2009 at 5:39 am

I’ve never hesitated to help myself to something another person has put out to the curb – or brought to the recycling center for that matter.

One of the nearby towns actually has a space at their center where items can be exchanged instead of tossed directly into the dumpsters. We got a very nice sewing machine there a few years ago.

Rather than toss items I know others can & will use I put them at the end of my driveway with a ‘FREE’ sign on them. With the exception of a very large exercise bike (which more than one Freecycler failed to show for before I put it to the curb) everything goes and I am happy knowing these items have been given a new use when I am done with them.


Magdalena October 8, 2009 at 1:13 pm

My best dumpster dives were for new and clean upholstery foam, outside the local boat-cushion makers, and a solid oak table from the dumpster at the university – always a good place to check at the beginning or end of term. And I am shameless about pulling good glass jars out of the recycling boxes. I prefer the after-dark cruise around the neighborhood – less high profile. Oh, and a sailor I knew once grabbed three large sails off the sidewalk on big trash day. You never know!


Karen October 8, 2009 at 4:06 pm

i have found tons of stuff on roadsides (dumpsters creep me out … ewwwwwwwww sorry…) … a free dresser with just the bottom drawer broken, kitchen chair cushions, a runner carpet, a gorgeous painting of cherry blossoms, etc. etc. of course, i’m a big yard-saler too! designer clothing, 25 cents? check! (wearing such a sweater right now). have gotten TONS of glass jars that way, too. what ARE people storing their stuff in? i shudder to think lol.


Erika October 8, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I just wanted to note that I also have a great ventilated pizza pan, discovered in an oven in an apartment we moved into years and years ago… we use it weekly to this day.


valerie heck October 9, 2009 at 4:01 am

Back when I lived in Maryland I found the best place to dumpster dive is at colleges at the end of sememster. When things don’t fit in the car to go home kids just throw them away.
I also once found a kids drum set, in perfect condition. So we pulled it out and gave it to a family friend.


lindainkansas October 9, 2009 at 6:26 am

Like Valerie, I get my best finds by checking out the dorm dumpsters at a university and six small colleges, all within 45 miles of me. It is amazing what kids toss. I have even found new items still in boxes that apparently were not cool enough to even unpack and use. Also on my dumpster drive-by and dive schedule: community clean up weeks in my own and nearby towns and the day after community-wide garage sales. I can’t believe what people toss rather than clean and repair. If I don’t keep an item, I allow a 1 month window to find a home for it, or I donate it–where it will have at least one more chance for usefulness.


Simpler Living October 9, 2009 at 9:01 am

I don’t think my mother has Dumpster-dived in years, but when she was younger, she once recovered a few boxes of Benny Goodman’s sheet music and arrangements (with notes in the margins) after watching a man dump them there in Long Island. They were authenticated and are now part of the collection at Yale’s music library.

Curiosity can be a very good thing!


thenonconsumeradvocate October 9, 2009 at 11:12 am


That is THE BEST trash picking story thus far. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode when Kramer pulled the entire set from the Merv Griffin show from the garbage.

What a great family legacy that she was part of saving that music.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


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