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How to Legally Dumpster Dive and Trash Pick and Re-Purpose Your Finds

Updated on June 20, 2014
Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren is a one-person fixer of "TLC Needed" houses. She explains methods simply to homeowners who are not in the construction trades.

Why spend money when you can claim something and personalize it -FREE?

Freebie at the Curb

Easy to fix  structurally sound telephone table/nightstand.
Easy to fix structurally sound telephone table/nightstand. | Source

One Person's Junk is Anothers Treasure

Whether I am earning a comfortable living or not, I’ve always valued my discerning eye. As I pass trash set out along a street’s curb the night before collection, I recognize all sorts of potential treasures. I like to regard myself as having enough of the “Great Depression Era” sensibility combined with the “Seventies Ecologists’ Earth Day” commitment and now the re-named, renewed “Green” moral correct action to make my Grab-and-Go scavenging creative and useful. All this without crossing the line into major obsessive-compulsive mental illness. If I had a warehouse, I could probably start a small business re-selling good goods.

Laziness or Ignorance Makes it All Possible

It appears that many citizens in the USA do not know about


2. The Salvation Army,

3. Goodwill, or

4. Their local thrift shops.

Freecycle provides an Internet forum for giving away articles to another household which wants them. It is an electronic bulletin board on which the potential giver of something for free “adoption” can match up with hopeful recipients.

The nationally known charities often operate stores and sheltered workshops which accept donations of gently used household goods, clothing, and books. Their standards exceed mine – they have actually refused my ratty donations (well, if it was still good, I wouldn’t be donating it, would I?) Ah, life in these United States.

When and Where to Troll for Trash

Here are four good starting points:

One: Neighborhood “Spring” or “Fall clean-ups”

Neighborhood “Spring” or “Fall clean-ups” are held by many municipalities. These are times when residents may dispose bigger items on trash day at little or no charge. Furniture, appliances, and patio equipment appear for the taking. It is so ripe with potential that one might see the equivalent of Sanford and Son cruising around the nights before pick-up. These clean-up days have been favorites of college students and recent grads seeking to furnish an apartment. If you can access several township or village newsletters, you can plan ahead. My finds have been lumber and a ladder.

Make it your own

Sanding and cleaning will be the hardest part.  Then, a coat of paint over everything and it will be fabulous.
Sanding and cleaning will be the hardest part. Then, a coat of paint over everything and it will be fabulous. | Source

Two: Townhouse and Apartments with Outside Dumpsters

Anytime can be a great time at townhouse or apartment complexes with big, outdoor dumpsters. People try to dispose of anything they can possibly hoist into the metal box. If you’re really lucky, just the piece you’ve wanted will be placed outside the dumpster because it was too heavy to toss in. I have retrieved an old-fashioned wooden office chair this way. From the top of a dumpster I have scored tablecloths, lumber, and small bookcases. The end of the month is a time to be alert as renters who are moving out may lose patience with sorting possessions and do one big divestiture into the trash.

Three: Trash Night

Out at the curb sits the traditional treasure trove the night before weekly trash pickup. Sometimes a kind soul will post a “Curb Alert” on Craigslist to notify the world that there are special treasures to be had. Another big tip-off is a “SOLD” sign in front of a house. Keep an eye on that baby as the family decides what will not be moving with it to the next residence. End of a season is also a time when the junky lawn chair will not be stored all winter and it sits at the curb waiting for a new owner. I have obtained a lovely wicker laundry basket, telephone stand, and wicker lawn chair this way.

Solid Wicker Patio Chair

The legs have a few cosmetic defects.
The legs have a few cosmetic defects. | Source

Four: After a Yard Sale

Post-yard sales are potential hot spots. In the late afternoon of a yard sale (a/k/a tag sale, garage sale, rummage sale) day, one often sees a pile of unsold detritus at the street with a sign declaring all is “Free.” This happens when the sellers are resolute in their decision that these articles will never enter their house again. Of course, most of the desirable goods were picked over and purchased earlier. But, you can’t get freer than free, so take a look.

Slight Downside to Trash Picking

This practice carries a slight risk. Sometimes one needs to retrieve item from a dirty dumpster or top of the garbage can in order to have a good enough look to know whether it is salvageable. Good judgment should prevail. Decide if it is worth snuffling through apple peels or garden soil on a case by case basis. Also, stay alert and use all five senses. What at first glance may seem like a dusting of garden dirt may, on closer proximity, be something you do not want to be anywhere near!

Also, some apartment complexes might try to view a non-resident trash picker as a trespasser. You will need to evaluate each situation and do a risk-reward analysis.

Then, if it is what you want and will fit in your vehicle – go for it. Quietly.

Close-up of chair leg needing a bit of disguise.
Close-up of chair leg needing a bit of disguise. | Source

Gamesmanship of Trash Converting

In my book, there is no shame is “re-purposing” a used item honestly gotten. It is almost like a contest between you and the article. The article sneers, “I shall never be good-looking and you have wasted your time dragging me home. And, on top of this, you shall waste more time mending and modifying me – yet I shall prevail: old, dated, wobbly, ugly, and a testament to your poor judgment and taste. BWA-hahahahah!” Then, you, stylishly wrapped in your Superhero of Re-Purposing cape haughtily respond, “Your career as a cast-off and as junk is FINISHED. I will make you so much better that you will hardly recognize yourself.” It’s a game.

Sometimes, the only task required is a good cleaning. Then, you are lucky. If you must do more than clean, that is not necessarily a bad thing. By interacting with and changing the item, you are exercising your creative spirit. You are expressing yourself. You are sharing your unique self with the world, and that is a gift.

Knowledge is Power

Now you know four venues for examining others’ cast-offs, willingly placed somewhere to be taken away. It does not matter to the former owner who takes it. Just let it be gone. So, if you are living frugally and need an item, clean-up days, regular trash days, big dumpsters, and the waning hours of yard sales are made for you.

States with Public Dumps

I have never lived in such an area. If readers would share their experiences and whether re-claiming trash is possible, I’d appreciate it.

Photos and text copyright 2011 Maren E. Morgan.


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    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      If your local pay you are not breaking any law - I feel you are fine. I am not a lawyer, but it sounds good to me if the law enforcers are ok with what you are doing.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Doodlebugs, thanks for sharing your experiences. In my area, the Freecycle geographic territory has gotten unwieldy. If it split in two, it would be more user friendly to me. I check our Craigslist, but haven't scored a freebie from it. Good deals and good barters, but no freebies yet.

    • doodlebugs profile image

      doodlebugs 6 years ago from Southwest

      I use Freecycle and the free section of Craigslist to get rid of thing and to find things I need. In our neighborhood many people put things they don't need out by the curb before trash day, put "free" on them.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      AliciaC - Thanks! It is a shame that so many quite serviceable things go into landfills. Is it different in your country?

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      What an unusual and entertaining hub! You have some great ideas for obtaining furniture and other items cheaply.