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The art of dumpster diving

Tools of the trade

Maglite flashlightWhile diving doesn’t require any special equipment, beginning divers may feel more comfortable taking along a few tools of the trade:

  • Flashlight
  • Gloves
  • Baby wipes
  • Bottled water
  • Baseball cap (useful when propping dumpster lids on your head)
  • Dive stick (a long stick for shifting heavy bags of trash)
  • Grocery bags or a small shopping basket (for the goods)
  • Milk crate or portable step stool
  • Pepper spray (a good thing to carry, in general)
  • Razor blade (for opening bags quickly)
  • A small stepladder

Safety comes first

The term “dumpster diving” refers to the position most divers assume in order to retrieve items without actually getting in the dumpster: Picture yourself balanced on the edge of the dumpster, head in the dumpster and legs in the air behind you. (Novice divers may experience some initial discomfort around the abdomen and ribcage. This will pass.)


Safety should always take precedence. No bag of sheets or even the mother lode of brand-name designer shirts is worth a trip to the hospital!

Here are four more tips to help you stay safe:

  1. Avoid getting in the dumpster, if possible (some contain broken glass).
  2. Never get in the dumpster when you are alone.
  3. If you do get in, make sure you can get out.
  4. If you’re petite, make sure there are boxes or bags in the dumpster that are sturdy enough to use as a makeshift stepstool.

Stepstool for dumpster divingYou may see large (often green) “dumpsters” that might be attached to a building or freestanding. If attached, they will have a chute from the building to the “dumpster.” If freestanding, you’ll notice lights and other mechanics. These are not dumpsters. They are compactors, the enemy of the dumpster diver. Do not get in them. Not only is it next to impossible, but it is also potentially deadly — not to mention illegal.

So, where to?

Now, the fun part. Where do we dive? Generally speaking, any store that has a dumpster is up for grabs. Retail dumpsters include craft supply stores, party supply stores, drug stores (a great source of greeting cards, paperback books in a dumpster diveboxed chocolates, small gifts, cases of soda and toys), book stores, department stores, discount stores, pet supply stores, home décor stores, thrift stores and hardware stores.


Strip malls are the best places to find retail dumpsters — they’re usually located behind the buildings. Apartment complexes, meanwhile, are a great source of furniture, clothes, small appliances, televisions, VCRs, household items and more.

Secret treasure troves

Once you’ve started diving, you’ll never look at a dumpster the same way again. To us, they are no longer merely trash receptacles, but rather secret treasure chests waiting to be looted. But you’ll never know what you may find in your local dumpsters unless you look, so get out there and lift some lids.


After your first haul — even if it’s just a box of best-selling paperbacks (like we discovered on our first foray) — you’ll think twice about paying retail. Dumpster diving has replaced recreational shopping for us… and maybe it will for you, too!

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