Introduction: Dumpster Dipping (for a Small Planet or Just for Fun)

Picture of Dumpster Dipping (for a Small Planet or Just for Fun)

Dumpster Dipping (please avoid dangerous diving) is an enjoyable activity involving a pleasant bike ride, a hunt, the thrill of discovery, the mystery of recent archeology, forensic storytelling, good Karma recycling, and a form of shopping with green environmental impact. It helps me get in touch with my early human hunter gathering roots. It is similar to gold panning, hunting, geo-caching, shopping, gambling and other hunt and find challenges where there are a variety of possible outcomes.

It is also possible to undo your entire carbon footprint through the recycling of other people's former stuff.

Step 1: What Would I See If I'm Brave Enough to Look?

Picture of What Would I See If I'm Brave Enough to Look?

There are many things in the dumpster that do not deserve to be buried yet.

You will see some things that do, and some that do not, belong in the dumpster.
You can recycle them, repurpose them, make them into art.
You can clean them up and use them, donate them or just set them next to the dumpster hoping they are adopted (Catch and Release).

I finds lots of clothing, household goods, computers, appliances, vacuum cleaners, household chemicals, paint, mixed drawers emptied into bags, coins, postage, furniture, on and on.

Some of the best items found to date:
Autographed scripts from "The King of Queens", new Navajo woven rug, LCD computer projector, various hand tools, a folding bike, complete sound systems with music CD's, and record players with records.

Step 2: One Bike Load of Today's Treasure

Picture of One Bike Load of Today's Treasure

The end of the summer session made for a big dumpster day on college campuses.
This represents one very big bike load of primarily clothing.
I also got a laptop computer and its case and cords.
I plan to keep a couple of shirts. I plan to keep the brand new chopper bike fork and use it in a future custom bike (Maybe a wood-chopper?).
My niece wants the jeans for some projects and my daughter found a jacket she likes. The rest is about 6 bags of clothing and luggage for the charities.
You could have frequent garage sales if you liked that sort of fun.

I recycled about 100 lbs of paper and cardboard, and a couple pounds of bottles and cans.

Step 3: The Tools Are Optional

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Tools are optional and used mostly to extend your reach.

Most useful:
A good gripper for general picking up of things like books, paper, clothes, desk drawer emptied into a bag, etc
Instructable on making a grabber
A loop and tube (lasso on a pole) for lifting heavy or slippery things like pipes, full bottles, chairs.
Bring your Identification. (The authorities like being able to look you up and let you go.)

Some old bike inner tubes to use as bungee cords for lashing down the load.
A box cutter for flattening boxes and skinning broken fancy leather chairs,
pliers, wire cutters, screw drivers, crescent wrench, and
a stick with a nail or screw out the side for hooking items or stabbing and dragging cardboard.

Step 4: Start of the Run

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I start out with an empty cargo bike made of a mountain bike fitted with an Xtracycle cargo conversion. The cargo bike was given to me by campus maintenance folks who were having trouble trying to fit it in the dumpster.
Biking is the best way to go. Low carbon output, fresh air, exercise, low stress, stealth, ease of maneuverability, and low threat projection.

Step 5: Dumpster Dipping Etiquette

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Dumpster Dipping Etiquette is very important. You are in other people's turf and you have access to their prior belongings so don't make a mess, and don't embarrass them.

Dumpster Dipper's Etiquette

1. Do not get into the dumpster. "Dumpster Diving" is just a phrase.
2. Do not Dumpster Dip on private property. Respect any "NO TRESPASSING" signs.
3. Do not Dumpster Dip in the recycling bins. That stuff is already going to a better place.
4. If a civilian asks what you are doing, you can truthfully say "I'm looking for Boxes". Or "Other people's recycling, want to help?" That will confuse them.
5. If the police ask what you are doing, tell them what you are doing and why. The recycling, the charity donations, the keeping some for your family, how you are clean, careful and considerate, your philosophy on how this is in keeping with community environmental goals, where dumpster materials go if you do not rescue them, etc. The officer will be squirming to get away from you after a minute. Be agreeable. Do not argue with them.
6. If any one asks you to leave - do it. Don't argue. Don't discuss it. You can always come back later.
7. Transfer cardboard, mixed paper and aluminum from the dumpster to the recycle bins. Each pound transfered reduces Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by about 3 pounds of CO2.
8. Leave the dumpster and it's environs neater than how you found it.
9. Wash your hands often. Think like a raccoon.
10. Be pleasant, encourage folks to recycle and handle material properly.

Step 6: Safety

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Safety is a priority in this hobby.
Do not get in the dumpster! Reach in, preferably with a gripper stick.
If you reach with your hands wear gloves.
Only touch things gently in case there are sharp things lurking.
Do not eat from open packages.
Do not encourage minors to be dippers. Safe Dipping takes good judgment, and you may encounter non-kid-appropriate items.

Step 7: Stealth?

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Stealth can add to the fun.
I am usually quiet, discreet and business like.
But being silly is fun too. Note the lowered stance to avoid attracting attention.
Also it helps to run serpentine. :-)
You can make the run more challenging by trying to avoid detection.
Mostly I just try to avoid detention.

Step 8: Manage Your Karma and Your Luck Will Manage Itself

Picture of Manage Your Karma and Your Luck Will Manage Itself
Managing your Karma has a great impact on the pleasure of the run. I find that by focusing primarily on the good deeds of recycling of cardboard, mixed paper and some aluminum, the time passes enjoyably with little frustration. Focusing on the recycling makes the discoveries of "treasure*" all the sweeter and seemingly more frequent. Conversely, if I'm seeking a coffee maker with no other purpose for the trip, I just keep finding disappointment.

  • Treasure refers to useful items I can use, share or donate etc.

Step 9: Offsetting Your Carbon Footprint by Recycling Instead of Landfilling.

Picture of Offsetting Your Carbon Footprint by Recycling Instead of Landfilling.
Material and pounds of CO2 emission prevented by recycling each pound of material*
Aluminum : 15.0 (pounds of CO2 / pound of material)
Steel Cans: 2.0
Copper : 5.5
Mixed Metals: 5.8
Glass: 0.4
PETE Plastic: 1.7
Corrugated Box Cardboard: 3.2
Magazines: 2.8
Newspaper: 1.9
Office Paper: 4.1
Mixed Paper Board: 3.7
Mixed Residential Paper: 3.6
Mixed Office Paper: 3.7
Information distilled from US EPA's website and their WARM spreadsheet EPA's solid waste models

  • Compared to burying it in a landfill that captures its methane and burns it in a green power generator to displace other powerplants. If your landfill ain't that green, your recycling is even more beneficial.

Step 10: Where to Troll on the Suburban Trapline

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College campuses have lots of good castoffs from students moving out at the end of the quarter, especially in June. When they leave, some toss everything in large mixed bags into the trash dumpster. You can help out by sorting the recyclables and skimming off the use-ables, donate-ables and repurpose-ables. Keep an eye out for tossed text books that can be resold to the campus bookstore (very lucrative recycling).

Clothing, lamps, appliances, furniture, bikes, scooters, tools, supplies, computers, electronics, music, books, etc.

Another productive spot is behind retail outlets where they toss broken or damaged, blemished goods in the trash. It is fun to see what can be found, rescued, repaired or repurposed. They also toss a lot of display rack material (Metal tubing, Beautiful lumber, shelving).

The dumpsters are like traps that catch what some people no longer want. You can go and rescue items before they are entombed. You can set items free or domesticate them for your own uses.

Step 11: The Five Stages of Grieving Applied to Climate Change

Picture of The Five Stages of Grieving Applied to Climate Change

Coming to terms with the reality of climate change and the implications of the loss of the old climate is like coming to terms with the loss of a loved one and we see evidence that different people are in each of the five steps of grieving for the old climate.

1) Denial (Today is colder than normal here, therefore, The Scientists are wrong! wrong! wrong!)
2) Anger (Al Gore's son was caught speeding. So global climate change is a hoax.)
3) Depression (There is nothing we can do, the Chinese coal plants will drown us all.)
4) Bargaining (Maybe I can just buy some carbon offsets and someone will plant a tree for me.)
5) Acceptance (The greenhouse effect and climate change are now part of my reality and I will interact with that reality as best as I can in a constructive manner. My legacy will be about proper behavior in the face of the facts.)

Be part of the solution.
It is not too late to change.


WestcoastR (author)2015-09-30

Amazing !!! West coast recycle provides best junk removal services in at affordable prices. Our garbage pails can handle all type of waste for all different jobs. It allows you to quickly find the right size dumpster for your project.

NomadHobbyist (author)2015-02-03

Enter this into the On A Budget Contest! I'll definitely vote!

__michonne (author)2014-12-19

Some colleges host a recycle event and anyone can come in an trade or share items

Woodenbikes (author)__michonne2014-12-19

Yes! Those are great places to give or get things. I give to them whenever they are open. As a resource rescue-er, you have to find a variety of "outlets" for the treasures you rescue. Currently I use the following for annual outflows of: 300 bags of clothing and household items - charity thrift stores , 50 bags of books - Friends of library, 1200 books and associated packaging - Amazon book sales, 10 bags of clothes - college free store, 20 laptops -a computer rehab program for low income students)

SIRJAMES09 (author)2014-09-28

OK, it's official...

I'm jealous....I go dumpster diving all the time & I NEVER EVER found stuff like that....

places around my home, I hit them up 3 x a week....the other 2 days I have 2 routes that I run....

TY for sharing Sir.

Woodenbikes (author)SIRJAMES092014-09-28

I met a guy who dumpster dove in Hollywood, CA. He had to get a truck and open a store to sell everything he found. My outflow is easy. I sell about 1200 book per year on Amazon and donate about 300 bags of clothing house ware and books to charity shops.

conchoman (author)2009-05-14

Yall should cruise around University and college campuses during the move out week, Especially the more expensive colleges, my brother did where he is attending school and has pulled out Entire bicycles that were barely used.

ushuaia (author)conchoman2014-08-12

He did mention that he goes around after the end of the semester.

pyrotechnical (author)2008-10-25

Anyone have any advice on coffee beans or grounds found in the dumpster? The ones i found were in their can and inside a plastic bag.

Coffee grounds can be used in compost for gardening

Agentfern (author)pyrotechnical2011-11-30

I heard about a printer that uses coffee grounds for ink a while back.

Ian01 (author)pyrotechnical2011-02-13

If you find any more coffee, and it isn't consumable, you might want to use it to make a coffee balloon gripper. Just an idea.
Homemade version:

BeanGolem (author)pyrotechnical2008-10-30

I went diving with some friend a while back at a coffee packaging plant. Most of the discarded coffee was due to a misprinted label, or the plastifoil tubes not being separated properly. If it's sealed, then it is highly likely to be OK for consumption. If it's just a grocery bag full of grounds in a can... try a cup and see :D

pyrotechnical (author)BeanGolem2008-10-30

cool, thanks.

3366carlos (author)2013-02-23

i like your bike.

rocketburn (author)2012-08-07

yeah there was a pallet of science reports i passed up. some sort of usgs. one person wrote about 2 or 3 large pallets of reports. I started the stupid carbon thing. One day a girl from ucsc started being concerned about the exhaust from cars and trucks. I said it is only co2. Now plants absorb co2 and expell oxygen as waste gas.

bajablue (author)2012-07-13

This is a fabulous Ible!!!

ilpug (author)2011-11-08

Oh god, do I have to try this. In my small town, not a very good idea, but definitely when I get to college.

Reuse Portland (author)2011-10-27

College campuses are a great hit. ESPECIALLY in June when the students move out. Many fly home and cannot take their belongings with them. Also, at least here, colleges make you move out during a very small window of time (~3days) so treasure is very concentrated. So far this year, I have lived on just the proceeds of what I find as well as donated some really good stuff.

My best finds:
Computer flat screens
Photographers Luggage
Lots of Beer
Textbooks, Textbooks, Textbooks
$1,200 Italian suit (My size!)

Tricorvus (author)2011-09-12

And let us not forget the hillbilly staple of Big Trash Day Curbing. My neighbor found a perfect white couch for her parlor. My better half was stunned & more than happy to help her get it, and install it. Combine some of the more fantastic finds with going thru this Instructables site, and you can really do some serious damage (the good kind). MBH & I are redecorating our home that way. Got rid of my late mother's old 1941 furniture, in the house she left me, gotta have somewhere to sit. Saving a fortune. All upside, no downside, so far as I have seen to date. :D

cantthinkof bettername (author)2007-08-25

can you make a living off dumpster diving?

Can you make a living off dumpster diving?

Are you kidding ?
Here in the Netherlands, we even organized "Giveaway Shops" where found and donated items are distributed. See for example:

Yes, but don't count on making big money. But one can live comforably, given they have the ability to turn the materials found in the dumpster into things people want again. Some dumpster stuff doesn't even need this help. My uncle found a very nice Dale Earnhardt uniform jacket in the dumpster, and even before a trip though the wash, you wouldn't have guessed if you didn't know.

A retired couple who were receiving their pension any way in the Los Angeles area paid for a few semesters of college for their kid by dumpster diving. They sold items and recycled them, used items for their home, putting the money aside for school. The story ran in theTtimes...

Some people have averaged over $40,000 a year doing this...

That's really cool considering you dont need an education to get that much money. I try to save anything i can think of a use for, but i cant think of how i could sell it

Prometheus (author)Prometheus2007-08-27

In addition, depending on what you can repurpose/recycle, you can also try raiding demolition sites, industrial district, even the low-income areas can yield just what you can do to do the world better. I have three treadmill motors and their *expensive* DC controllers that, if I so chose, I could resell on Ebay for well over $400 a set.....but they are for my own use instead....As a result I have removed more than 30 percent of the total weight (less energy to haul the rest) and recovered awesome parts I could never afford on my own. I've never purchased a neon-sign-transformer in my life, yet I have four of them only 800 hours old that would have been landfill.

I've been doing this for well over a decade now, and no matter where you look, the ingenious person can find something somewhere. <looks around>.....In fact, I don't think there is a single appliance I own that I have paid anything for in my entire home, with the only exception being my computer's motherboard (literally), and my modem. Even my 19" monitor is rescued from certain "doom-fill", and it's in perfect working condition.

At this point my next run is donating over $13,000 worth of various equipment and appliances to fund charity. I also keep any cell-phone I find, as most will dial 911 whether you have service or not. Noone should not be able to call for help when they need it, contrary to the belief of the 27 percentile of the country nowadays.(thankfully not any issue come the new 2008 "not-for-sale" elections).

Oh that reminds me...I should publish my heavy-weight bike trailer construction (900+ lbs enough cargo for you?) Keep a lookout for it coming soon!

My wife and I have good day jobs that support us. So dumpster dipping for us is just a fun, charitable hobbie (like many other folks who do volunteer work) with perks (like the 3 cases of still cold, imported beer we found yesterday).

An earlier commentor (diylyhbilly) says he was a pro...
And I met a guy who said he made a good living handling the pickings in Hollywood and had to open a retail shop to sell it all.
In the pre-wasteful days (before 1950s in the US) there was a job known as the rag-picker who would sort the materials in the dump truck style garbage truck while on its route. The Freegans say they can get by on what they find.

You could start a business of proper handling of junk/clutter cleanup and make a good living.
There are many ways to participate for fun, charity, greenity, or profit in the spectrum of discard rescue.

louis.m (author)2011-08-04

Nobody can change the past,
everyone is authorized to change the future!

Lildevil963 (author)2011-06-18

SCORE! i found a backpack full of porn at a campus lol i left it tho.

unaffiliatedperson (author)2011-06-15

yeah i used to do this for a living a while back when i was squating in highschool and trying to get meals, needless to say food poisoning was normal. albiet i found a great dumpster i always get speakers, one time an almost new bottle of bacardi and a beach cruiser bicycle

thewmas (author)2011-06-07

I've been dip'n/dive'n since I was young, Now day's I go on my bike > I've found everything from A to Z. Allot of stores have the inside compactors, or surveillance camras anymore, I still find stuff, but not like the good ol'days
Some of the best things I've found over the last year > push lawnmower, digital camra, food, (frozen turkey's), tobacco (i smoke), kids bike, kids guitar, office chair, etc
Best advice I can give is, have a partner, pic stick, wash water, good lighting, small ladder (one that leans up againts the dumpster, work clothes, and be careful.

frodobot (author)2009-03-24

at up to what age would you class a "kid". 13?

Woodenbikes (author)frodobot2009-03-24

Personally, I'd say under age 18 is too young. Yesterday I found a couple of boxes of cigars that are not legal for minors. Age improves judgment, and judgment is important in dipping.

hellstudios (author)Woodenbikes2011-05-31

oh c'mon, you just don't want an underage boy to look like an important business man with those cigars. you're hoarding them for yourself.

sharlston (author)Woodenbikes2009-09-07

im 13 what would happen if i went dumpster diving?what would i find?

1spartan95 (author)sharlston2010-07-06

Dude, I dumpster dive and I'm 12. I've found an old licence plate, 2 Cd-rom drives, an outdated computer book, and a computer chair that could be fixed with some duct tape.

Zem (author)Woodenbikes2009-10-07

 I agree with you, about judgement. But I am 14 and would never touch a cigar/cigarette in my life. I have good judgement. I would really like to do this (in the recycling aspect.) But I guess your judgement is probably better then mine...

raceryz350 (author)2011-04-22

joeofloath (author)2011-04-20

Schools are good for dumpster diving - I found about 6 laptops, 8 DLP projectors (Working on hacking in new bulbs), nearly a dozen hard drives, and some misc parts. My friends had most of it, but I got three working laptops, a parts laptop, two projectors and three hard drives.

Also, look everywhere. I found a £600, 700w UPS behind a bakery of all places. All it needed was new batteries. There were two laser printers too, but someone else had those.

Whitestar245 (author)2011-03-26

For all those bottles you recycled:
Coke bottles have caps with codes on them, which can be entered at If you dive often, these will really add up...

CluainnFhada (author)2011-01-01

The vast majority of those socks seem to be the same brand...

stonewar (author)2007-09-13

Who the hell is throwing away money!!!

Woodenbikes (author)stonewar2008-03-03

My daughter has a very nice foreign coin collection from the reject bin at the local coinstar machine. We have found freshly laundered clothing with a load of pocket change. Also, the old "dump the entire desk drawer in the trash" technique gives you a bag of office supplies and spare change.

hitachi8 (author)Woodenbikes2010-07-24

once i found 200$ in a pair of jean .

Ghost Wolf (author)hitachi82010-12-30

doubt it mirror your money 200$ and you get $002 hhhmmmmm

hitachi8 (author)Ghost Wolf2010-12-31

don't care .
no one cares about your opinion anyway .
you are on the internet DUDE >!

Ghost Wolf (author)hitachi82010-12-31

hm good point never thought of it like that

wobbler (author)2010-09-29

Can you believe that it's actually illegal to take things from skips in the UK? It's classed as theft, although I don't know if anyone has ever been done for it and had to spend time in Stalag UK.

Ryutso (author)2010-08-12

The instructable on making a gripper seems to have...vanished.

About This Instructable




Bio: Long time bicyclist, bike commuter, bike tourer, recent bike builder/experimenter. I'm an energy consultant for hydro electric, solar and other renewable energy generation.
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