eco-friendly side hustle

Dumpster Diving – A Sustainable Side Hustle

So much of what ends up in the trash may not be needed by the person throwing it away, but could easily be put to use by somebody else. Unfortunately, capitalism often makes it more economically viable for businesses and people to throw things away than to re-direct them to people and organizations that could use them. As I outlined in a previous post, my rationale for dumpster diving melds my environmental concern with the obvious economic benefit of obtaining much of the food I eat, the clothes I wear, and many other items for free. In fact, I find so many still usable items of value in the trash that I am able to turn dumpster diving into a sustainable side hustle and generate a couple thousand dollars every year selling this “waste.”

Dumpster Diving Tools

sustainability tool

In order to keep this a sustainable side hustle, my boyfriend and I ride our bikes as much as possible when dumpster diving. One of the things I enjoy most about dumpster diving is that it is an outdoor activity. I crave time outside and the bonus when riding my bike is that I’m exercising as well. I love my bike. I refer to it as my joy machine. My boyfriend and I have rigged our bikes up with baskets on the fronts and backs. We each have folding trash grabbers to use when retrieving those hard-to-reach items. I also keep a collapsible step stool that I rescued from a dumpster on my bike. The pièce de résistance is the leather holster, which I also retrieved from a dumpster, that my boyfriend fastened to the basket on the front of his bike to conveniently hold his trash grabbing stick for quick, smooth, easy handling even while in motion.

Sustainable Side Hustle – from the Dumpster to eBay

In addition to diving at grocery stores as I outlined in my previous post (along with the legality question, which usually arises in a dumpster diving discussion), we also dive frequently at thrift stores. We are continually amazed at how much good stuff small independent thrift stores throw out. We Americans consume so much s*** that our thrift stores can’t even handle all of what’s donated to them so they usually throw the excess out. Larger chain thrift stores such as Goodwill and Salvation Army throw away so many items they usually have trash compactors attached to the backs of their stores.

Granted some of the items that get thrown out are no longer useful as originally intended, but a lot of it is still usable. These dumpsters are teeming with perfectly good, sometimes brand new clothes, Christmas decorations, books, greeting cards, and so much more. (I have seen very few small thrift stores with a recycling bin. Almost everything they throw out goes in the trash. Very little of it gets recycled.) Additionally, store employees often don’t have the knowledge, training, or experience to recognize the value of the vintage or more obscure item they just tossed into the dumpster. The majority of the money I have earned from dumpster diving has come from rescuing items from a nearby thrift store dumpster and selling them through my eBay store*, kombuchica. Some of these still usable and valuable items include:

dumpster eBay sale

-vintage Kitchen Aid meat grinder accessory parts

-a handmade Technivorm MoccaMaster from the Netherlands (it was missing the carafe, so I sold the base and other accessories individually)

-a brand new unopened Rosetta Stone Swedish set Levels 1, 2, 3

upcycled plant pot

Many of the items I have pulled out of the thrift store dumpster were arts and crafts books so I established an Etsy shop I named Reclaimed Abundance to get those items in the hands of people who would appreciate them. I’ve also started drilling holes in mugs and other ceramic items from this dumpster to create upcycled plant pots, which I plan to start selling on Etsy as well in the near future. All of the packing and shipping materials I use are being recycled as well. The boxes and padded envelopes are sourced from the thrift store dumpster, university dumpsters, local recycling drop-off stations, and friends. I have found rolls of thin bubble wrap in the dumpster at an arts college at the end of the semester and larger sheets of bubble wrap constantly fill recycling bins.

Another reliable source of used items of value are dumpsters outside of university dorms or neighboring apartment complexes at the end of the academic year. I’ve sold the used textbooks students throw away on eBay as well. Some of those used textbooks sell for close to $100. At the end of the semester, there is only so much students and parents can fit into their cars. Students from overseas often experience even greater space constraints as they can only fit so much in their suitcases. I’ve also stuffed my linen closet with a month’s worth of toilet paper, outfitted my guest room with a nice comforter and sheet set, and filled my desk drawers with pens and sticky pads.

Selling Dumpster Finds on Craigslist & Facebook

Aldi dumpster diving

The larger items I find, like mini-refrigerators at universities at the end of the semester, I tend to sell locally on Offerup, Letgo, Craigslist, etc. Aldi dumpsters are most often filled with food, but sometimes staff discards non-food items as well that have been bought, opened, and returned to the store – often still in like-new condition. The response I received to a local Facebook Marketplace post I created for two Aldi knock-off Instapots I had retrieved and posted for $25 each was much quicker and more enthusiastic than I would have ever imagined. I continuously sell empty one-gallon glass apple cider jugs rescued from the natural grocery store. After rinsing them out and soaking off the labels I sell them to local home-brewers.

The last income generation stream I’ve created as a result of these waste stream diversion efforts is probably my favorite – the Reclaimed Abundance Farmacy, my backyard plant nursery, which I officially registered with my state’s department of agriculture at the beginning of the year. I compost much of the produce I rescue and turn it into black gold, e.g. very healthy soil for the plants I sell, many of which were rescued from dumpsters.

Dumpster Divers on YouTube

I have watched videos posted by a number of dumpster divers on YouTube. I find the tone and style of most of them unappealing. The YouTube Channel I have enjoyed the most on the topic is that of Mom the eBayer. She lives in Chicago and has identified some densely populated affluent townhome neighborhoods to scour regularly where there are many trash bins in the alley in close proximity, which can be efficiently “processed” on the morning of trash pick up day. She is earning far more than I have so far dumpster diving. In my city wealthier families primarily live in single family homes so the trash cans are not placed close together in an alley in those neighborhoods plus they are often full of yard waste, which makes it more difficult to find anything in them. More and more condos and townhome type neighborhoods are being built in my area so maybe I will start targeting these developments in the future.

Dumpster Diving on My Way to Financial Independence

This environmentally friendly and frugal activity plays a significant role in my pursuit of financial independence. Not only do I save hundreds of dollars monthly on my grocery bill I also earn a couple thousand dollars per year selling things I find in the trash. My boyfriend and I have a repertoire of dumpsters we hit when we drive to places locally to as he says “pay for the trip.” We also do it on road trips sometimes for the same reason. Additionally, I share many of these items with friends and family, swap meet and Buy Nothing Group participants, as well as members of my local time bank (for which I earn time bank credits). All of that sharing increases my social capital and strengthens my ties to people in my community. Plus, as I mentioned earlier I often ride my bike when I dive so this gets me outdoors and being physically active. And then there’s the most important benefit – extending the life of still useful items, which not only keeps stuff out of the land-fill or an incinerator where it becomes air pollution, but reduces the need to extract more resources from the planet to produce another one.

Yet, almost every time I see dumpster diving referenced in the FIRE community the opinion expressed is negative. I enjoy Paula Pant’s Afford Anything podcast (Does anyone else think she has the best voice and delivery of all the podcasters in the FIRE space?), but I think she looks at dumpster diving through the traditional bottom line lens when she states that it is a penny-pinching activity that takes time away from other endeavors that could 10x your income generation instead. I believe the rewards of this pursuit can be far greater than she thinks when we look at it through the triple bottom line lens this blog uses.

The most positive portrayal of dumpster diving in the online FI community I’ve seen can be found on the Financial Panther blog, where Kevin summarizes how he and his wife earned $1,300 one year selling the items they found in the trash of their luxury apartment building. Some Mustachians have also shared their dumpster diving impressions on a forum on the topic on the Mr. Money Mustache blog.

*I have also started sourcing a small number of free or very inexpensive books from libraries and thrift stores and selling them on my eBay and Etsy shops as well.

**Update: Since publishing this post I was interviewed about my dumpster diving exploits on episode 114 of the FIRE Drill Podcast.

And now a word from YOU!!!!

Have you ever rescued something from the trash to use yourself or sell it? Or do you have a sustainable side hustle? If so, please tell us about it in the comments section below.

If you enjoyed this post about dumpster diving check out these posts about other sustainable ways to build wealth

Earning Money from the Waste Stream

Are You Thinking in Sustainable Stores of Value

Building Skills to Build Lasting Wealth

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  • Reply
    Cristy Abbott
    July 17, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    Brilliant Laura!
    You are so amazing. I love the work you do. Your written expression is comprehend-able and inspiring!
    When I first did my PDC and had my first job creating a garden on the south side, I didnt own a vehicle. I rode my bike down the alley ways of St Pete and envisioned a team of bike riders, networked with the junk truckers, rescuing re usable items. Most of the junkers looked only for metal for cash exchange. For me it was more about repurpose, repair, re distribution and resale of the items to those who were in need of them. My visions are often times, far too large to achieve any thing personally.
    I am so proud of the simple, slow, thought out approach you have brought to the art and need of such an endeavor. Thank you, for all your efforts. I for one, am astounded at your success.

    • Reply
      July 17, 2018 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks, Cristy! We miss your permaculture inspired visions here in St. Pete.

  • Reply
    Cathleen Cooks stuff
    September 27, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    Yes, I have. I’ve gleefully picked up some things out for bulky pickup…a stroller in great shape, a total gym. The piece de resistance was a metal lathe a couple blocks down the street. Turns out that it was the exact machine my husband learned machining on in the army! He looked up the old serial number. We fixed it up and refurbished it and will be using it to start up a side hustle doing machining work.

    • Reply
      September 27, 2019 at 1:25 pm

      That’s fantastic! Your metal lathe story is going on my list of all time favorite waste stream diversion successes.

  • Reply
    September 27, 2019 at 3:59 pm

    This is wonderful! I love the idea of upcycling and saving stuff from ending up in the landfill. We’ve found many items over the years just set out by the curb. It’s amazing how people throw things out that could at least be donated. Glad you enjoy it and can make money, too.

    • Reply
      September 27, 2019 at 4:31 pm

      Thanks! It’s great to be hearing from others that also have rescued things from curbs, dumpsters, alleys, and more.

    • Reply
      April 14, 2023 at 2:34 pm

      I started dumpster diving in 2005 when I would go to visit my dad who lived in an apartment complex I would take his trash out I noticed there was always items around the dumpster sometimes bagged up in the dumpster but it wasn’t mixed up with refuse it was just strictly items junk drawer stuff stuff that wouldn’t fit in the closet and whatnot that was the beginning of my dumpster diving now 2023 still doing it still hit the same complex in fact been hitting the same Apartments since 2006 I have five complexes I go to each day and I generate roughly minimum 400 a month I’ve made as much as $2,000 in one month just from dumpster dive gems it’s unbelievable I’ll do it for the rest of my life I keep it kind of a secret because I’m not too confident what people would think of me but it is unbelievable I even tell my nephews I find better stuff in the dumpster than you guys get for Christmas

      • Reply
        April 15, 2023 at 4:56 pm

        That’s fantastic! I find dumpster diving really fun and look at it as adult treasure hunting. Since my boyfriend enjoys it as well it makes for a very enjoyable and profitable date night activity. Happy treasure hunting….

  • Reply
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