Dumpster Diving Decorating: Green or Gross?

A few years ago I was perusing a tile store looking for tiles for a DIY mosaic project and asked the tile salesman if he had any chipped or broken tile for my project. He pointed toward the direction of the dumpster out back. At first, I was put off by the idea of rummaging through the store trash, but took the plunge anyway. Not only did the trash bin prove to be “clean,” it was a treasure trove of beautiful, brightly colored shards of broken and unbroken tile. This find was just ripe for my DIY tesserae mosaic project. As my husband and I backed the car up to the dumpster, I asked him, “Is this an all time low of insanity, or are we on to something green?”

Wikipedia defines dumpster diving as, “The practice of sifting through commercial or residential trash to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but which may be useful to the dumpster diver.” There are several ethical arguments to justify dumpster diving. By reusing resources destined for the landfill makes dumpster diving a green endeavor. Another is the wastefulness of a consumer society and its throw-away mentality that prompts some individuals to rescue usable items from destruction.

Is it illegal to take something from someone’s trash or go through a store dumpster? I did some digging around and found that since trash has no value, it is generally not theft. But, make sure that there are no local ordinances or laws that make this activity illegal in your area. Also, get permission if trespassing on private property.

Is there an art to dumpster diving? For decorating purposes here are some recommendations, adapted from, Should you decorate your home with trash from the streets?:

  • Don’t be a snob. There are great items that people throw away, and you could provide a great new home for them.
  • Be discerning. Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s going to work in your home or that it should be in anyone’s home. So use some commonsense and throw in a dollop of good taste.
  • Be cautious of upholstered items. Sofas, cushions, pillows, and other soft goods may have become infested with little insects and other critters while they spend time outside.
  • Steer clear of old mattresses and wall-to-wall carpets. Both house dust mites and other allergens.
  • Broken items like old china and chipped vases can be handily recycled.
  • Make sure chair and furniture parts are sturdy and strong once again.
  • Turn an old bookcase, chair, or table into something really fun for your home with just a new coat of eco-friendly paint.

Ever since that first plunge into the tile store dumpster, I keep my eyes peeled for creative ways to convert tossed items into decorative decor for my EcoNest. What do you think? Are you a dumpster diver? Is rummaging through a dumpster a way to hunt for treasures for your home something you are willing to dive into, or an adventure in grossness?

Ronnie Citron-Fink lives in New York with her husband, two children (when they come home to the nest), two dogs and a cat. Ronnie is a teacher and a writer. She has been a contributing writer for Family Fun magazine. She currently writes articles about education and home design. Her writings are in four books including Family Fun Home and Some Delights of the Hudson Valley. 


Ryan Z.
Past Member 6 years ago

If I look around my house, I'd say around 70-80% of the things I own came from a dumpster (or garbage in general).
Nearly all my clothes came from a dumpster.

Sure there can be some nasty things in dumpsters, but if you know where to go/look you can find some amazing things. It's not as if I don't wash things before using them.

Maija Shelley
Maija S7 years ago

GREEN! And fun! Treasure hunting is such fun. I can't count the number of times I felt so lucky and proud of my finds.

Ana B.
Ana B8 years ago

this is a great article, Thanks

Louis Olivencia
Lou Olive8 years ago

use your creative eye :-)

Claudia Parker
Claudia Parker9 years ago

Dumpster diving is great. you would be amazed what peole throw away. It's too bad however that people don't think twice about doing it and donating useful items to charity or save for a swap, or just put it out on the curb any day of the week. You'd be surprised how easy it is to get rid of stuff by putting it on the curb with a "free" sign on it. I have gotten rid of stuff that way and enriched my life with goodies from the curb as well.

Katie W.
Katie W.9 years ago

Great piece!
Last year at school my environment committee decided to take a stab at making the school barbecue 'no-impact'. It was a complete success! For over 800 students, we had about a quarter of one garbage bag's worth of trash.
But as we went to place our recycling and composting out back, we came across a scary sight: The school dumpster was absolutely full, and with recyclable stuff as well!
My friends and I were appalled, so we decided to take the leap and go for gold. I ended up standing in the dumpster, pulling out basically the contents of the trash: Much of it was one-sided paper, storage bins, and old manuals!
We kept almost everything, except for what could not be used again. The dumpster was almost empty when we were done, and all of a sudden our classroom was abundant with extra workbooks. Not only did we save tons of stuff from the landfill, we started a new campaign!
From then on, we started making 'hilroys' of our own, using single-sided paper around the school. Putting bins specially made for this in key areas and in every class, we collected as much paper as we could, photocopied lines onto them for writing, stapled it all together with a newly fashioned 'Green Initiative' cover, and gave it all back to the student population! We saved not only money spent on copybooks, but reduced our paper consumption!
Again, thanks for sharing.
If you want to learn more about what's going on at my school, our site is www.rwaec.com

Victoria L.
Victoria L9 years ago

Been divin' since I was a kid; my brothers and I would take to the streets one that special night when the neighbors would put out that great stuff for the monthly truck day. So, if there is a law against it, guess they will have to catch me first!;)

Lizzie A.
.9 years ago

It sounds fun!

Nansee C.
Nansee C9 years ago

thanks for sharing your experience. i've never actually went dumpster diving before, but i've always wanted to.

Smith M.
.9 years ago

I can't imagine that any of the stores around here are actually throwing good items away, I am really curious though now I am going to take a trip to the strip mall near me this morning and see if I find anything besides real garbage, and hopefully not rats.
16gb usb stick