Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Cheapest Hobby: Dumpster Diving

A little while ago, Trent at The Simple Dollar posted about making your hobbies more frugal. I'm lucky in that the hobbies I am naturally drawn to happen to be very cheap, and even money saving, activities. I love to cook, and recently took up the art of baking. I find gardening very rewarding too. But sometimes I need a little more adventure, as well as a change of scenery. That's when I get the itch to go dumpster diving.

Dumpster diving is done for all sorts of reason and by all sorts of people. The motivations for it include environmental concerns, financial need, and pure entertainment. Some people want to reduce the amount of stuff that ends up in landfills. Many dumpster dive for food, toiletries and other items because they need or want to save money. They are either comfortable with the risk or they don't have much choice. For others, it's just something interesting to do on occasion with some free time. A few dumpster divers get hooked by the thrill of the hunt and sense of adventure. Plenty of divers combine several of the above motivations.

Individual divers take various approaches and dive for many different sorts of items. I used to live in a wealthy college town. At the end of the school year the pickings were ripe around the student housing and dorms all around campus. In the upscale neighborhoods, one might find free appliances in working order on the curbside any time of year. On two separate occasions I found rusted but fundamentally sound cast iron skillets sitting outside with the trash. I took them home, re-seasoned them, and still use them today. Dedicated divers develop their own expertise in local "resources." By visiting a wide range of dumpsters on a regular basis, it's possible in some cases to learn the schedule and predict when the dumpster will be full or empty, when it will contain freshly discarded food or other specific items. Others take a more casual or opportunistic approach. Some "divers" never climb inside a dumpster at all, but just take what they can grab from the top. I've seen people "diving" only for aluminum cans or other scrap metal they intend to sell for a little cash.

Personally, I haven't worked up the nerve to dive for food. I've heard the horror tales, and I'm just not that brave. Instead, my husband and I dive for building materials, and we are frequently astounded by what we find. The new housing market hasn't totally collapsed where I live. There's still a fair amount of "development" going on. And the house sites are nearly always unoccupied on weekends, especially Sundays. We've found usable lumber, roofing shingles, twisted up belts of perfectly good nails, five-gallon buckets, metal tools with busted wooden handles, and even a new porcelain pedestal sink in perfect condition in construction site dumpsters. If the house is being built in an area where there are already other houses around, it usually becomes a magnet for stuff other people want to get rid off. I've found antique blue glass bottles, a real slate blackboard in a wooden frame, and a neon orange adult-sized snowsuit in perfect condition in such a dumpster.

For people who keep themselves on a very strict budget, dumpster diving is like a bonanza. Everything is free, and every dive is something different. There's no doubt about it: dumpster diving is cheap fun for frugal folk. Whenever we go dumpster diving we have to make some tough decisions. Invariably we find more stuff than we have room to haul. So we sort through the lumber and reject the smallest and most damaged pieces, cherry-picking our finds until the car or the bed of our beater truck is full. If we hit an especially rich dumpster, we may even make a second trip.

I've made well appreciated Christmas gifts from materials I fished out of dumpsters. And we built our chicken coop and pen partly with with salvaged materials from our weekend adventures. We'll be building our retirement home at some point. Literally building that is - we plan to do as much of the hands-on building as feasible, only contracting out highly specialized jobs like the foundation pour, the rough in plumbing and the rough in electrical. So there's a good chance that we'll be able to use some materials we've salvaged ourselves. We're keeping an open mind about the design of our home so that we can incorporate as much salvaged material as we like. In the meantime, we store our finds in a shipping container on our land.

Dumpster diving is exciting, but there are are some obvious caveats. Dumpster diving is risky and illegal in some areas. It always, always pays to have your tetanus booster shot up to date. Exercise extreme caution when climbing in to a dumpster, and before doing so, make sure you'll be able to climb back out. Make a good visual inspection and enter at your own risk. You may encounter rusty nails, broken glass, or even discarded syringes. Contents may shift around dramatically as you walk over them. Wear protective clothing, and dive with a buddy if you plan to climb inside. The worst that's ever happened to me while diving is a splinter or a bruise, but I'm aware of the risks every time I dive.

Rules of ethical diving. Check your local regulations to make sure dumpster diving is not illegal in your area. Never pick up anything that contains anyone's personal or financial information. If there are signs or fences indicating that you are not welcome, heed them. If you are challenged by someone while diving, whether they are law enforcement, owners or employees, be polite and non-confrontational. If asked to leave, do so quickly and never return to that dumpster. (You may be able to avoid trouble by saying you were looking for cardboard boxes. Few people will object to this, but it won't work if you've already hauled out a bunch of other stuff.) Leave the site in the same or better condition than you found it. If there is any question whatsoever about whether or not something was intended to be discarded, leave it as you found it. Finally, if you start to acquire a surplus of items through your diving, consider giving away what you can't use to someone in need.

Got any diving questions, phobias, or success stories? Share them in the comments!


Lisa said...

I live in a college town, and this is end-of-lease season. This week our family has collected an apple corer, a coffee mug rack, a set of metal mesh baskets, steel bed frames (to be used as trellises and half-walls in the garden), a sturdy hardwood chair, some PVC tubes, some wood, and some plastic shelving. I saw some more treasures on my trip into town today. I'm as happy as a raccoon in the 'burbs!

Kate said...

Isn't it amazing what gets thrown away? It's nice to hear from someone who finds use for these things that still have plenty of use left in them. Thanks for stopping by.


Anonymous said...

I´ve mentioned this before but I wish people would go back to calling it salvaging, dumpster diving sounds so dirty, yuck, maybe if your homeless and desperate, not me,

But on the other hand salvaging is a great way to get things cheap and free.

rob in madrid

Kate said...

Hi, Rob. I guess the terminology doesn't bother me. I'll grant you that it sounds dirty, and sometimes it is. But as you point out, it's a good way to get free stuff, whatever you want to call it.