I studied at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the early 2000s. My girlfriend at the time lived in a neighborhood with a large student population. I frequently walked from her place to campus to get to class.
Each spring as the bulk of students began to leave town, the area would become overrun by SUVs and moving trucks packed to the gills with stuff they’d accumulated during the year.
Inevitably, there wasn’t enough room to pack it all away. Piles of free stuff appeared on front porches and parking strips, while other excess belongings were unceremoniously tossed out by owners who couldn’t — or didn’t want to — deal with them.
One such spring day, I was walking through the alley behind my girlfriend’s apartment when a sight from a nearby dumpster stopped me short. Perched on a stack of trash bags was a physics textbook I owned myself and had paid over $100 for a few semesters prior.
I approached it curiously, wondering if it had been thrown away by mistake, and became increasingly baffled as I thumbed through the pages to discover it was nearly pristine. Underneath I spotted a few more books in good condition, along with some lightly used notepads and a pack of sharpies. I stuffed the lot in my backpack and went on my way.
After class, I stopped at a student bookstore that bought used textbooks. They offered a modest sum for the ones I’d found — though it felt like a windfall given that I had plucked them from a dumpster a few hours earlier. They passed on the physics textbook because a new edition was coming soon, but the cashier suggested I try selling it online instead.
When I got home, I looked the book up on Amazon and my jaw dropped. Used copies in excellent condition were listed for no less than $75, so I priced mine slightly lower to undercut the competition.
A few hours later, as I sat at my desk studying for an exam, I got an email notification that the book had already sold. It was the easiest money I’d made, and no small change at that point in my life.
The next day, I walked to my girlfriend’s apartment through the same alley, this time more attentively. I peered into dumpsters, poked around trash cans, and rummaged through a few free piles.
Everywhere I looked, I saw valuable possessions: furniture, clothing, electronics, household items, school supplies, and above all, textbooks. I couldn’t fathom why people would throw them away rather than walk a few blocks to trade them in at the bookstore, but there they were.
It was a moment of revelation for me. All this stuff, which before had only dimly registered to me as “garbage,” was suddenly a cornucopia of treasure. I realized just because something is thrown away, that doesn’t make it trash.
From that moment until I finished college, I had only one job: I was a dumpster diver. I gained not only by selling what I found, but also by saving money on all the stuff I didn’t have to buy because I got it for free.
No other employment available to me at the time would have been nearly as lucrative or flexible, and I doubt many jobs would have taught me as much about enterprise and self-sufficiency.
After that, during move-out season, I cruised around student neighborhoods filling the back of my car with castaway goodies.
Textbooks were my specialty. Some days I’d gather one trunk load of them, head home to unpack and list my take online, then go back out for more.
By the time I returned with the next load, I’d have sold hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise. Gather, list, sell, repeat. I was clearing $50 an hour easily.
I collected and sold all manner of other items as well. Lamps, desks, TVs, stereos, small appliances, kitchen utensils, athletic gear, pet accessories — you name it, I probably found it and sold it.
I stored everything in my basement and posted items on Craigslist. Whatever didn’t sell during the summer moved quickly when students returned in the fall.
Over time I honed my craft, learning what to take and what to leave behind, where to scavenge the best prizes and how to maximize gains.
I checked every dumpster in walking distance of the university, and even expanded my territory beyond campus so I’d have more sources of sellable merchandise and wouldn’t be constrained by the academic calendar.
One of my most reliable bounties was the local public library, which routinely filled its recycling bins to the brim with books that apparently weren’t read enough. These weren’t $100 textbooks, but 20 minutes of sifting through those bins would yield a dozen or so books I could sell for $10 to $20 each.
Occasionally I’d stumble on a big score. In an alley downtown I came across a dumpster the size of a small barge, crammed with electronic components from a company that designed medical devices. I fished out a fully intact computer made to interface with ultrasound systems, and sold it for over $1,000 to a dealer I cold-called.
Perhaps my most absurd find was a literal cash box. It was abandoned in a fraternity dumpster, presumably because the key was missing and they couldn’t be bothered to crack it open. At home, it took me less time to jimmy the lock with a screwdriver than it did to count the roughly $500 inside.
Dumpster diving wasn’t all sunshine and paydays, however. For all the buried treasures, I encountered abundant unpleasantness: gruesome rodent remains, soiled underwear, wads of paper towels drenched in rancid salsa. My experiences were also tinged with gloom over how much needless waste is generated.
I learned that opportunity appears where others fear to tread. Many people are squeamish about garbage, and even more so about deviating from social norms, and my willingness to push past both sentiments benefited me greatly.
I got a lot of mean and suspicious looks while rooting around in the trash, but I shrugged them off. I knew dirt would come off in the shower, and I was confident that others throwing away perfectly usable goods was far less sensible than me reclaiming them.
I also learned that jobs come in all shapes and sizes. I didn’t need to put in 40 hours a week, sit at a desk, answer to a boss, or even turn a regular profit. I got to define work for myself, and my definition was no less legitimate for failing to fit certain standards. That lesson has continued to bear fruit throughout decades of self-employment.
Finally, I learned to be more thoughtful and intentional about my practices as a consumer. Seeing how much other people squander forced me to confront my own wastefulness and ask how I could do better.
Now I try to evaluate purchases carefully, to separate genuine needs from convenient wants, to look for products that are durable and sustainable, and to consider the fate of what I buy when its serviceable life is over.
I just hope that in the future there won’t be any industrious college students picking through my garbage and wondering what I was thinking throwing it all out.
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