Hi there! No matter what you call it: garbage picking, dumpster diving, or curb shopping, it’s all the same thing, and it has grown tremendously in popularity over the past few years. And today, you can add me to the list because I’m talking from personal experience about garbage picking for awesome vintage and antiques.
The stigma against rifling through another person’s refuse has been reduced somewhat, to the point where now it’s actually rather cool. And in fact, several hundred bloggers (maybe more) have written about their experiences with it.
I’ve also heard several people say that now is a great time to be scouting for good junk because people are using their time at home to purge and clean. A silver lining to the current situation.
Related posts: Why I Love Estate Sales & Why You Should Shop Church Sales
My Personal Experience with Garbage Picking
My experience as a garbage picker goes back pretty far, to my early twenties when I attended college in Westchester County–that’s the ritzy part of the state, e.g., it’s where the Clinton’s live. I used to walk a loop around the outer edge of campus which happened to abut a nice neighborhood.
On a garbage day that I happened to be out, I noticed a box of ceramic planters sitting out by the side of the road, along with the trash bins. I grabbed a couple that appealed to me and let’s just say a habit was formed, LOL.
As I write this, I realize that I come by this garbage picking skill genetically. My sweet father started me bottle digging at a young age and I’m sure that’s when the bug hit me. It basically involves digging through 100+ year old garbage dumps to find treasures. In fact it’s a sort of novice form of archaeology.
In my late 20’s, after law school, I continued to pick through other people’s garbage, but primarily for furniture. At some point along the way I had connected with a local organization that helped emancipated youth (usually from rough families) set up their very first apartments.
Years later, in my early 30’s when I started my antique business, the practice took on a whole new meaning. I soon realized that keeping an eagle eye out on trash days could result in actual income.
The Curbside Discovery of a Life Time
One day, years ago, after dropping my son off at preschool, I noticed a box of magazines sitting on the curb in my neighborhood. I pulled over to see what the box contained and soon noticed quite a pile of “junk”–mostly covered by about 3″ of snow.
Brushing off the snow revealed antique framed prints, hooked rugs (see photo above), and boxes of miscellaneous treasures. No one answered the door when I knocked so I stuffed the entire load of good, clean junk into my trunk and sped home. So many treasures!
But here’s the absolutely amazing part: Junk continued to be piled there for months and eventually a dumpster landed in the driveway and it too was filled with treasures. Each time I stopped, I knocked on the door, but no one answered.
A few weeks into this adventure, someone finally answered the door and I learned that the woman who lived there had died. Her family traveled from three hours away once a week to work on emptying the house. They gave me permission to keep picking and even began to set aside items for me(!).
I explained at our first meeting that they were throwing away valuable stuff and should consider holding an estate sale with what remained. They insisted that material things meant little to them, and they didn’t want strangers sifting through their mother’s things.
In the end, I “found” upwards of $20,000 in vintage and antiques, including: Christmas ornaments, furniture, jewelry, glassware, china, textiles, perfume bottles, toys, rugs, artwork, ephemera, and more. Eventually, they let me give them a very small amount of money for what they called “extra special” items, but otherwise, it was all FREE.
CRA. ZEE. Right??
How You Can Begin Garbage Picking
So you wanna be a garbage picker?? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Learn garbage nights. In cities with municipal garbage pick up, you can learn the pick up days for each neighborhood and go “scavenging” the afternoon/evening before. In suburban areas where home owners typically hire their own companies, each having different pick up days, it’s a bit trickier. In this case, almost any day goes, but you might have to travel further afield to find good stuff since the picking is less dense.
- Learn yearly large item pick ups nights. Many municipalities designate one or more days a year for picking up large items. Often you can learn what those days are well in advance, for example in a the town of Clifton Park in my area, they’ve done just that.
- Check FB Marketplace for curbside announcements. Many homeowners post on Facebook Marketplace (and Craigslist, too) whenever they have items at the end of their driveway available for free, whether it’s after a garage sale or simply the result of “spring” cleaning. Message them before going out of your way (unless it’s super close) to make sure the item(s) you’re interested in are still there.
- Ask friends to alert you. Make sure your friends know you are interested in any piles of “trash” they might see while out walking or driving. If they happen to be standing next to the pile while call you, they may even tell you what’s there and take anything that interests you with them 🙂
- Check garage sale FREE boxes. Garage sale FREE boxes count as garbage picking in my book. It’s the stuff the sellers think is junk, but on the outside chance someone might want it, they throw it in a box and mark it free. I know some people who are too shy to poke around a good old free box, but you shouldn’t be–free is good! Free is awesome-sauce, so always check them 🙂
NOTE: Before you begin garbage picking, check your local and state laws to make sure you don’t break any of them.
What Equipment You Need to Pick Garbage
Every hobby or business practice requires proper attire along with necessary equipment. Here are a few things you’ll want to have with you before you head out garbage picking:
- Bring gloves and/or hand sanitizer. Since you don’t really know what you might encounter when picking through someone else’s garbage, it’s always a good idea to have a pair of gloves for protection and hand sanitizer to kill any germs.
- Leave a box in your car for smalls. To make life simpler and avoid getting the interior of your car dirty, keep a box or two on hand. You’ll thank me when you find that awesome rusty thing-a-ma-bob or soaking wet doo-hickey. Into the box they go.
- Blankets to protect your car and your new-found treasures. On the off chance that you come across mountains of curb-side finds, have a blanket or two on hand to protect any particularly valuable or delicate item. Use them also to protect your carpet should any really dirty items be bigger than your box.
- Rope and/or bungee cords. Just in case you need to tie down your trunk or rear van door, or alternatively, to tie something to your roof. It pays to be ready, LOL.
- Bring a driver so you can focus. I highly recommend bringing your driver with you, because then you’ll be completely free to keep your eye out for any good-looking garbage. Seriously. Bring your driver.
The Proper Curbside Shopping Attitude
As with any practice in life, there are certain do’s and don’t regarding behavior that should be kept in mind. Some are basic to life, others are specific to the action. Here are a few of my suggestions:
- Don’t be a scaredy-cat. If you’ve never picked through someone else’s garbage, I completely get why you might hesitate about jumping in. I recommend that your first venture into the activity be made outside of your own neighborhood if you’re concerned about “what others will think.”
- Be courteous to the home owner. Since you’re engaging in a let’s call it an “unusual activity” in or near someone else’s property, it makes sense to conduct yourself with the utmost courtesy. For example, I almost always knock on the garbage-owner’s door first to touch base and confirm that I can take items from their trash. And for goodness sake, leave things as you found them, i.e., don’t leave a mess(!). I know you would never do that.
- Keep the peace. If you start poking around a pile of junk without touching base with the owner first, and they come out and start yelling at you, just leave. Don’t get into an argument. Don’t defend your actions. Just leave. Ditto if questioned by a police officer.
- Be courteous to others who spotted the goods before you. If someone got to the treasure pile before you, they kind of have “dibs.” I recommend acknowledging their presence with a “Hey there,” and then “Do you mind if I take a look at what you’ve already seen?” Or something like that. Any issues? Just drive away.
- Be courteous to the neighbors. Don’t even think about blocking traffic or driveways with your vehicle.
How to Stay Safe While Picking Garbage
Use wisdom and common sense when it comes to maintaining safety while picking through the garbage of people you don’t know. That said, I’m going to list a few thoughts since one can never be too safe. Most of them will seem obvious, but they are worth emphasizing:
- Follow the attitude rules above to avoid trouble with owners and/or police.
- Wear gloves and use hand sanitizer.
- Handle everything with care.
- Be extremely cautious, slow and careful when opening a bag, box, or container since you have no idea what’s inside.
- Avoid sharp and/or rusty things.
- Don’t attempt to pick up items that are simply too heavy.
- Avoid food items of any kind.
- Don’t climb into dumpsters (do as I say, not as I do, LOL)
What Sorts of Things Can You Expect to Find on the Curb?
Over the years I have rescued many, many wonderful things from the garbage. Here are just a few:
- The vintage aqua bottles were rescued on the last day of the World’s Largest Garage Sale in Warrensburg (NY) a couple of years ago. I sell them in sets of three for $12-15 from my booth.
- We happened to see this toy oven just as it was being set out on the curb, and had a lovely conversation with the owner who was happy we were rescuing it. I sold it on Facebook Marketplace for $30.
- The brass lion head drawer pulls came off of an antique desk that we picked up on the side of the road on our way to Bennington (VT). We loaded that monster into the back of the van and continued on our way. The drawer pulls sold for $18.67 on eBay.
- I found the billiard balls in a bucket at the end of a town-wide garage sale. I split them into two sets and sold each set for $15 from my booth.
- The antique bottle brush trees were found in a cardboard box tucked into a rather large pile of junk in a local Schenectady (NY) neighborhood. I sold the large trees for $10 each and the small ones for $5 each from my booth. They would each have sold for quite a bit more if in better shape.
- Remember the desk from Bennington? I took it apart and gave a lot of the wood to my father who’s a carpenter. He made several jewelry boxes for various family members with the Cherry wood. (Isn’t it lovely??) I use the desk drawers regularly for display, and I kept the top for some future as-yet-to-be-determined project, LOL.
- I found the scrap wood in the same pile as the bottle brush trees (above).
- We did an emergency U-turn to retrieve the three vintage suitcases. The one on the far left sold recently for $15 from my antique booth.
- About forty of the Wade animal figurines cried out to me for rescue from a “FREE” box at a garage sale a few years ago. I sell the common ones for $2 each at my antique booth. I always have a bowlful of them for sale.
My Most Recent Garbage Picking Experience
A couple of weeks ago, on one of our Saturday drives out into the country, my sweet husband and I happened upon this pile of vintage and antique goodness. The piece of cardboard on the far right exclaimed “FREE,” so we didn’t need to bother anyone. We just scooped up anything that looked good. Here’s what I grabbed:
- A heavy cardboard “barrel” that I’ll use to hold scrap wood in my garage. In the past I’ve sold similar ones for $20.
- A shovel head that I discovered is marked “D & HRR” for Delaware & Hudson RR, so a RR collector might be interested. I originally planned to use it as a garden decoration, maybe with “garden” stenciled on it, similar to this one.
- A metal rack that I thought might (or might not) be useful for displaying earrings that I sell at the Shaker gift shop.
- A large, very heavy message board (from a church?) with a glass door.
- An old drawer–great for displays in an antique booth.
- A close up of how the metal rack (above) could possibly be used to display earrings.
You can check out the video I took on this recent garbage picking adventure, and I would SO appreciate it if you’d pop over, give me a thumbs up, leave a comment, and/or subscribe to my channel. Thank you!
I hope you enjoyed seeing some of my vintage and antique finds that I picked from the garbage. If you’re not a garbage picker yet, perhaps now that I’ve given you some insider tips you’ll give it a second thought?? If you in fact are already a seasoned picker, then I’d love to hear about your adventures in the comments!
P.S.: I think you’ll enjoy Things I Find in the Garbage, a blog written by a fellow named Martin who lives in Montreal. He literally lives off the things he finds in the garbage, and he follows my personal philosophy of diversification, i.e., selling from multiple venues since selling from one alone doesn’t work well these days. Tell him Adirondack Girl sent you 🙂
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Bye for now,
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