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Educational items found in dumpsters | Dumpster Dive 360 | Re-using notebooks, pencils, pens, books, backpacks found in dumpsters

How to Scavenge for School Supplies

Never purchase school supplies again. Dumpster Diving is an issue of civic responsibility. There are Salvation Army bins throughout the dorms for giving away gently used clothing and shoes. Why then are there shoes in the dumpster with the tissue paper still inside them? By dumpster diving, you are saving landfill space and not buying a pair of shoes that you don’t need. When it’s school supply time and despite the glossy ads featuring pretty new pens, pencils, binders, scissors and whatnot, it’s actually okay to *gasp* reuse the stuff you already have. That’s right, fellow non-consumers, last year’s scissors will still work this year, and that slightly used pencil can be re-sharpened. And that grubby binder? Try giving it a scrub and laying it out in the sun to dry. You’ll be surprised how fresh it can look.

Where/When to Dumpster Dive at Dorms, Schools and Colleges

Every college has a required move out date. However, no student has enough room to pack all of the “dorm stuff” they’ve accrued into their mom’s Suburban. An unholy amount of perfectly good stuff goes into the dumpster SIMPLY BECAUSE THE STUDENTS DON’T HAVE ROOM TO TAKE IT HOME. They don’t just throw out gross stuff they don’t want. Although some of the dumpsters have actual garbage in them, the bulk of it is good stuff that didn’t fit into Dad’s trunk. That means all the unused school supplies, lightly used electronics, and lightly worn clothes are up for grabs!

Unfortunately this method of diving gives you a VERY small window to succeed in. Careful planning is needed.
To put things into perspective, 3 days after the enormous haul in the intro picture, the dumpsters were stripped of everything useful. Timing is everything.

First, find a college near you. If you want to get fancy choose the one with the highest tuition/living expenses. This was easy for me because I live on campus at UCI (my family works there).

Second, find the move-out date. Call the campus or poke around the college’s webpage, it’ll be there. Choosing the day is tricky, and you might want to go on multiple consecutive days. Choose a day before the actual move out date (the Friday/Saturday before is usually a good bet). If you have time, go to the dorms, and look around. If there are parents/students packing their cars, you have picked the right day. Dive ahead.

Third, scout the dumpsters you plan to raid. Keep in mind, dumpsters have to be accessible from the road (for the garbage truck). Google Maps is a good tool, but it can be tricky to spot dumpsters/dumpster houses without knowing what you are looking for. Some form of scouting, virtual or physical, is a good idea.

Free School Supplies in dumpsters | Dumpster Dive 360

Safety Tips

  • Check art classes for broken utensils that have been thrown away.
  • Always check trash cans and recycle bins.
  • Keep all of your supplies in good shape for as long as you can. This is to ensure that they work for as long as possible.
  • Never throw away old notes, especially from upper classmen.


  • Wear gloves when sorting through trash, if you can.
  • Never leave any old supplies if you can help it.

Be Cautious

Dumpster Diving has been a grey area for a long time. There have been cases of people being arrested/detained for dumpster diving. Don’t act/dress suspiciously. From a legal standpoint, the previous owner has relinquished ownership of whatever you take once they throw it away. So you should be fine. If you are told to leave, then leave. Play it safe.

Other Tips to find FREE school supplies!

According to the National Retail Federation, the average family spends more than $600 on children’s clothing, electronics and back-to-school supplies each year. And with school budgets dropping, the list of school supply families have to purchase keeps getting longer and longer.

Here are ways you can save money by getting free alternatives to expensive school supplies.
“I try to remind parents that they are investing in their child’s future by getting help, investing in the future of their child and the community as a whole,” says Diane Iverson, open door director of special projects at The Coalition for Compassion and Justice, a nonprofit whose Fresh Start program provides school supplies to low-income families.

1) Inquire If Your Child’s School Teacher Shops at a Resource Center

Organizations across the country provide free supplies to teachers from qualifying schools. “Teachers from designated school districts located in the immediate areas of these centers who have at least 70 percent of their students enrolled in the federal free lunch program can qualify to shop,” says David Smith, executive director of the Kids in Need Foundation, which helps support the nation’s teachers and students. Smith explains that these types of programs have excellent relationships with major retailers and manufacturers of school supplies across the country.

2) Organize a School Supplies Drive

Chances are you’re not the only parent wincing at the thought of buying new school supplies. Team up with other parents or school/after-school organizations and host a drive at a local store in the community. Ask families to bring new/gently-used supplies. Set up a policy for bring-one-supply, take-one-supply.

3) Try an Online Group

Join a Yahoo Group or a Google+ community and post a request for the supplies you need. You can even use this group to promote your school supplies drive.

4) Utilize Your Community

Contact local churches, charities and nonprofit organizations, and research local distribution projects. The American Red Cross usually holds school supplies drives at their local chapters. “No family should have to choose between food and school supplies, as some families feel they must do,” says Iverson. “We help each other, and that is what it means to be a community.”

5) Seek Out Backpack Programs

Backpack programs — such as the Office Depot Foundation’s National Backpack Program, Schools on Wheels and School Ready Supplies — donate supply-filled backpacks to students.

6) Go Online

Craigslist doesn’t just sell items, it gives them away for free! Under the “For Sale” category, click on “free” and search for whatever supplies your child needs. You can also search Freecycle.org, a grassroots movement that connects people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns.

7) Check With Your School District

Some states require public school districts to provide necessary school supplies to children. Certain districts are also required to provide books and school supplies for children whose parents cannot otherwise afford them.

As you can see, there are numerous ways to get back-to-school supplies without breaking the bank. A little research and some preparation can go a long way toward supplying your child with the tools for success.

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