Dumpster Diving: Philosophy, Psychology, Community, Reward, and Laws

Last week, WIRED reported on Matt Malone, a professional dumpster diver in the United States earning a “six-figure salary as a security specialist” as his day job, and even more with his hobby.

The article covers Malone’s fascination and income-producing hobby of making use of and selling other people’s trash, exploring the psychology, philosophy, security risks, planned obsolescence of corporate, and the legality of dumpster diving.

Ten minutes later, when he’s again behind the wheel of the Avalanche, Malone continues to tell me about the material benefits of dumpster diving. If he were to dedicate himself to the activity as a full-time job, he says, finding various discarded treasures, refurbishing and selling them off, he’s confident he could pull in at least $250,000 a year—there is that much stuff simply tossed into dumpsters in the Austin area.

…But, he quickly adds, his foraging isn’t just about dollars. It’s also about the knowledge he acquires and the people he shares it with. He prefers to be known as a “for-profit archaeologist.” After all, archaeologists have always studied garbage. The esteemed William Rathje, who established the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, observed shortly before his 2012 death that refuse, more than anything else human beings produce, “gives us insight into the long-term values of a civilization.”

As for Malone, the main insight he’s obtained from digging through our civilization’s trash is that most people don’t place a lot of value in value anymore.

As a security specialist, he was asked to do a “zero-knowledge attack” on a Texas company, a security hack that steps away from the computer and into the garbage of a business. He uncovered thousands of confidential documents in the trash, and the company was impressed, as was he when he found computer equipment and other “trash” that still had life and financial reward.

…Even so, his garage soon overflowed, and Malone decided he should make some space by staging a weekend yard sale.

That sale provided several revelations. The biggest was what sold with the drive-by public. “I had all my cool stuff out front, a couple of very nice computers, mini choppers, some high-end printers—the big-ticket stuff—thinking, ‘This is what’s going to make me the money.’” It wasn’t. Instead, people flocked to “the small stuff”: the photo paper and toner he’d pulled out of the dumpsters at OfficeMax and Office Depot, the hand tools he’d found in the trash at Harbor Freight, the CDs from GameStop dumpsters, the assorted seasonal tchotchkes that had been tossed by the employees at Pier 1 and Cost Plus. “I eventually figured out that I had to sell the big stuff on Amazon or Craigslist,” Malone says. But all those small sales added up: By Sunday afternoon he had collected a little more than $3,000 in cash. “And that was when I realized, ‘This has the potential to be something.’”

The article revealed the community of scavengers in the area calling themselves “scavenger entrepreneurs,” describing them as “overwhelmingly white and working-class hustlers that are “willing to share what they know more than just about any people I’ve ever met.”

The 1988 California v. Greenwood Supreme Court ruling held that while there is a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment, it is “common knowledge” that trash that is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public” has no protection under the law to prevent access or use. If the trash is left out, it is there for the taking. Some state and city ordinances instituted rules against dumpster diving but few are enforced.

Hat Tip: Adam Coleman, CTEC, Clark College

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