Dumpster Diving – The True Second-Hand Shopping


When you picture dumpster diving you might picture a person dressed all in black, waist deep in a giant bin, scavenging for scraps of food, while covered in brown guck. Maybe flies swarm for cartoon affect.

But what if the dumpster was filled with unused makeup or clothing still with the tags on? Suddenly the picture is looking more like stumbling upon a box of treasure. Today the trend of dumpster diving for clothing seems to fit somewhere in between these two images.

When dumpster diving was considered more of a means to survive it was most commonly associated with finding food that grocery stores or restaurants had thrown out, often on their expiration date but still safe to eat. Today people are finding more then just food in dumpsters. They are finding clothing and make-up, meaning people are going diving for a bargain instead of a need.

The growing community of dumpster divers can be found on Reddit and online forums, and would consider themselves much more treasure hunters than scavengers.

“I started dumpster diving for environmental reasons. I have a degree in environmental science and bettering the environment is really what I’ve dedicated my life too,” says Shelbi Orme, or as her YouTube followers know her as, Shelbizlee. Orme describes herself as, “an eco-realist providing tips and tools for an attainably sustainable lifestyle.”

Orme rose to YouTube fame after posting a dumpster diving haul video that now has 1.7 million views. “After I had been dumpster diving for a while I realised that I could donate to others through it and also make money off it by selling some of the stuff I found,” says Orme, “As well it aligned with all my values so I thought this is something I really want to do and I love it.”

Dumpster diving is completely legal in the UK, as long as you are not trespassing on anyone’s property. “Even though it’s legal it’s really important not to get caught. It’s awful that when companies know that people are going through their dumpsters they destroy the products completely,” says Orme.

Image courtesy Youtube, Shelbizlee

Image courtesy Youtube, Shelbizlee

Image courtesy Youtube, Shelbizlee

Image courtesy Youtube, Shelbizlee

The place most commonly listed as the best place to dumpster dive is university halls after the students move out at the end of the year, referred to by Reddit users as, “Hippie Christmas”.

“My biggest dumpster diving haul to date was outside a student building,” says Ethan Ray, who posted his first dumpster diving vlog in 2017 and now receives up to 25,000 views per diving video, “I collected three full garbage bags of clothing and a TV.”

Monika Zayne, who runs a South London dumpster diving group of over 200 people says that, “If you’re in a dumpster and you step on a bag that squishes easily, it’s probably food waste. But if the bag feels solid that’s when it could be full of clothes.”

Many people on the diving forums say that charity shops are a good place to find clothing that has been thrown out. While this is disappointing, as the hope is that what is donated will go to good use, it is the reality that much of the clothes charity shops receive end up at the landfill.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Image courtesy of Unsplash

If you are comfortable with a second-hand piece washed by the charity shops wouldn’t you be just as comfortable with that piece if you washed it yourself? Would a couple of hours in the bin really make that much of a difference?

“I’ve never been bothered very much by the cleanliness of clothing found in dumpsters,” says Zayne, “People don’t throw away clothing in the same bags as their food waste, usually the bag only has other clothes in it. And of course I wash everything I find myself.”

Comfort level is the biggest factor when deciding whether you’re willing to dumpster dive. If you’re a true thrift shopper you’ve probably rummaged through some pretty gnarly bins at the back of warehouse stores. Some dumpsters may actually be less smelly than those places.

Now, if you’ve decided that you’re not comfortable with charity shop bins then would you be comfortable with garbage bins filled with new clothing?

The spike in people being able to find clothing in dumpsters demonstrates that fast fashion retailers are throwing product away.  Data of how much retailers throw away is rarely published. However when Burberry came under scrutiny for revealing that the company burned and threw away unsold product. Chief People, Strategy and Corporate Affairs Officer, Leanne Woods said in a statement that, “We’re the only business that’s reported it in their accounts but its something that happens in the industry.”

It is understood that certain stores instruct employees to damage clothing before they throw it a way - a fast fashion practice known as “cut-and-throw.”

“I felt so awful and guilty every time I had to cut and throw pieces of perfectly good clothing while working,” said Shannon Hilton, a former employee at a fast fashion store, “They don’t even make you destroy the entire piece just a small cut or rip here and there.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Because of these fast fashion practises we can’t talk about dumpster diving without discussing the bigger picture of waste. People being able to find bags of used clothing is exciting for that person but is unsettling to know that if that dumpster wasn’t dived into (as most aren’t) that clothing would have gone to the landfill.

WRAP has reported that in 2018 over 300,000 tons of clothing from households alone went to landfill. In New York a law has been implemented that if over 10% of a company’s waste is textile then that company must recycle the clothing. No such laws have been implemented for UK retailers.

“It honestly makes me so upset when I go diving around Christmas time and there are bags of clothing, including coats, that could be given to homeless shelters or people who really need them,” says Ray, “I used to dive just for myself but now I give most of the clothing I find to shelters.”

Ray ends a few of his haul videos conveying his distress over clothing waste, saying, “I know this actually will make a lot of you feel really sad, as it does me. All this stuff could have been put to better use. So remember not to be wasteful.”

Is dumpster diving at fast fashion retailers really second-hand or vintage shopping? Not quite. But is it much better than the items inevitably ending up in the landfill? Yes.

So go diving, get free clothes, and save them from landfills. Do it with pride. Just remember to wear gloves.

(If you do go dumpster diving check out Stain’s best sustainable ways to clean second-hand clothing)