Source: http://www.wired.com/2015/02/high-end-dumpster-diving-matt-malone/

The Pro Dumpster Diver Who's Making Thousands Off America's Biggest Retailers | WIRED
The Pro Dumpster Diver Who's Making Thousands Off America's Biggest Retailers

The Pro Dumpster Diver Who's Making Thousands Off America's Biggest Retailers

Peter Yang

The Pro Dumpster Diver Who's Making Thousands Off America's Biggest Retailers

Peter Yang
Peter Yang

Matt Malone doesn't mind being called a professional dumpster diver. He tells me this a little after 2 am on the morning of July 7 as we cruise the trash receptacles behind the stores of a shopping center just off the Capital of Texas Highway in Austin. Given the image that conjures, though, it's worth pointing out that Malone has a pretty good day job, earning a six-figure salary as a security specialist for Slait Consulting. He is also founder of Assero Security, a startup that he says has recently been offered seed money by not one but two separate investors. Nevertheless, the 37-year-old Malone does spend a good many of his off-hours digging through the trash. And the fact is, he earns a sizable amount of money from this activity—more per hour than he makes at his Slait job.

Malone stops his Chevy Avalanche next to the dumpster in back of an Office Depot. Within seconds, he's out of the truck and sticking his magnetized flashlight to the inside of the dumpster's wall. He heaves himself up onto the metal rim to lean inside and begins digging through a top layer of cardboard and packing materials. Half a minute later I hear what I will learn is Malone's version of eureka: “Hell yes! Hell yes!” He comes out with a box containing a complete Uniden Wireless Video Surveillance System—two cameras and a wireless monitor—which normally retails for $419. A quick inspection reveals that it's all in perfect condition, although someone has clearly opened and repacked it. “A return,” he says, then plunges back into the dumpster.

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. He lists a few recent “recoveries”: vacuums, power tools, furniture, carpeting, industrial machines, assorted electronics. Much of it needs a little love, he says, but a lot of it, like this Uniden system, is in perfect condition.

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.

Malone, head down in his work, behind a Bed Bath & Beyond in Austin, Texas.

Peter Yang

Malone started dumpster diving nine years ago, when he was working at a lower-level corporate security job. His employer had assigned him to conduct what's called a “zero-knowledge attack” on an Austin-based company. “That means you hire me and don't give me any information about your operation,” Malone explains. “I'm just a random guy who wants to break into your system.” The most effective way to do this was to dig through his client's trash; many hacks and identity thefts come from information left in dumpsters. Sure enough, after just a couple of weeks of looking through the dumpsters outside the client's offices, he had amassed a box full of documents, loaded with the confidential information of thousands of customers. (“It made quite an impression” on his client, he recalls.)

But he also discovered something else. One night while doing his research, he decided to poke around in neighboring trash bins, including the dumpster at OfficeMax. Inside he discovered “a whole bunch of printers, discontinued lines that were still in the boxes.” He took the printers home and put them in his garage. But he couldn't stop wondering what else was out there in the dumpsters of Austin. Before long, he went back out to see what else he could find.

A short and wiry man whose manic enthusiasm and radiant smile lend him a quirky charm, Malone says that at first he looked for items he could use himself, especially in his main passion, building and riding “mini chopper” motorcycles. On a hunch he checked the dumpster behind the Emerson Electric warehouse in an industrial park near his home, where he discovered several discarded motors that would provide enough power to move a mini chopper along at 40 to 50 miles per hour. Then, out of curiosity, he turned his attention to the dumpsters at Home Depot, Harbor Freight, Big Lots, Sears, Best Buy, and a few others. He was astounded at what he found: building materials, power tools, HEPA filters, and a dizzying array of electronics.

At first, Malone mainly used his discoveries for various hobby projects. Along with his mini choppers, he built an electric skateboard, a set of plasma speakers, several 3-D projectors, and a computer that ran while submerged in mineral oil. “People would come over and ask, ‘Man, where'd you get that?’” he recalls. “I'd say, ‘Well, I made it.’ I didn't say right away that I made it mostly from stuff I got out of dumpsters.” Inevitably his friends would ask to buy his various toys, and—usually already bored with them and having moved on to a new project—he would agree to sell. Even so, his garage soon overflowed, and Malone decided he should make some space by staging a weekend yard sale.

251 MILLION TONS

Amount of trash generated by Americans in 2012.

29.2 PERCENT

US recycling rate for consumer electronics.

66 POUNDS

Amount of e-waste the US produces per person per year.

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.’”

At the time, Malone explains, he was working for a company called Vintage IT and making only about half of his current salary, so he appreciated the opportunity to augment his income. He began to organize his approach, making daily checks of the various malls and business parks closest to his home to ascertain what days and times dumpsters were most likely filled with desirable items. Within a few weeks he knew exactly when the trash was collected at every store and business on his route so he could time his visits for when the dumpsters were fullest. He also learned to look for stores that were changing locations or—better yet—going out of business. Store remodels were also good targets. “I was learning as I went along and designing a kind of collection system before I even realized that was what I was doing.”

As we drive by a shopping center just off the Mopac Expressway, Malone remembers the weeks when the Circuit City that once anchored this mall was closing. “I went back day after day after day,” he says. “I got brand-new stereos, GPS devices, some really nice cameras, flatscreen TVs. I got a boom box there that was bigger than I am. And what was great was that you could sell it at retail, because it was all still in the boxes.”

Suddenly, Malone spots a huge “yarder” dumpster directly behind Bealls department store—an indication the store may be remodeling. Within moments he has pulled his truck alongside the yarder and used the truck bed to climb in. Wading through the cardboard and bubble wrap, Malone quickly finds three slightly used dress-form mannequins that he is sure can be sold to an owner of one of the pop-up clothing stores that have become popular in Austin. That's just the beginning, though. During the next 15 minutes, he's so deep in the bowels of the dumpster that at moments all I can see are his shoulders and the back of his head; he exclaims “Hell yes!” at least a half dozen times. When Malone is finished there are two large stacks of laminated MDF boards and plate-glass panels from discarded store displays in the back of the truck. He can use the boards at a workshop that he maintains in a small business park a couple of minutes from his North Austin home. “These precut boards are really expensive,” Malone says. “That's money I won't be spending.” Malone has operated a number of trash-related enterprises out of his shop, often with names like Chinese Scooter Repair.

Malone can get downright philosophical about the empire he's managed to build out of garbage. “We can only do what we do here because we live in a society where most people have been conditioned to look past what's right in front of them.”

Is Dumpster Diving Legal?

Chris Philpot

Sort of. The prevailing law comes from a 1988 Supreme Court ruling in California v. Green-wood, which held that when a person throws something out in a public space, they have no reasonable expectation of privacy. In other words: Most of that stuff is fair game. Trespassing, however, is a different story. If you dig into a dumpster on private property—one that’s up against the side of a building, within a fenced enclosure, or marked “No Trespassing,” for example—you could get ticketed or even arrested. In Matt Malone’s experience this is uncommon: “I’ve never even had a cop ask me for ID.” Most police couldn’t care less about dumpster diving, Malone says, “though I have encountered a couple of cops who did care about what I was finding. I usually give them something, and it makes them really happy.” A few municipalities have passed ordinances against dumpster diving that have not yet been tested in federal court. Malone encourages divers to follow what he calls the Move Along Rule: If a store employee, security guard, or police officer tells you to “move along,” you should—without arguing or trying to explain the law to them. —R.S.

So how did we get that way? The search for an answer leads at least as far back as 1945. The United States had come out of World War II as the only major power that was both richer and more powerful than it had been going in. Prosperity was becoming a kind of secular religion, and its visionary torchbearer was J. Gordon Lippincott. Today, Lippincott is remembered mainly as the father of corporate branding, the engineer-cum-marketer who created the Campbell's Soup label and the Coca-Cola logo. He was also, however, the high priest of planned obsolescence. “Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history,” he wrote. The phenomenon “is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it is contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity—the law of thrift.”

By the 1950s the US had emerged as the planet's first full-fledged consumer society. And the pace of obsolescence only increased with the rise of the digital age. As Gordon E. Moore so famously predicted, the integrated circuits that drove the next generation of innovation were doubling in power every 18 months. This rapid rate of improvement meant that consumer technology quickly became outdated—unable to perform the same functions as the latest gadgets and machines. The trend, buttressed by corporate stockholders who wanted ever-increasing sales numbers and by advertising and media that constantly pushed the latest breakthrough or advancement, soon created a culture in which people don't simply want the latest devices—they also see little or no value in the old ones.


“People got trained to throw stuff away,” Malone says.

So they did. By 2004, according to an extensive Columbia University and BioCycle study, the US had become a country that every day produced an estimated 7.1 pounds of trash for each man, woman, and child. Edward Humes, whose 2012 book, Garbology, is perhaps the most comprehensive consideration of the subject, recalls his visit to Southern California's giant Puente Hills Landfill before its closure. “You stand atop this 500-foot plateau of trash so big that you could put Dodger Stadium on top of it—with parking—and it literally boggles the mind. This is a landfill that serves just LA County, and the plateau has 130 million tons of trash in it,” he says. “Some of it's worthless, but a lot of it isn't. We're throwing away tremendous value.”

Malone sees himself as a kind of bridge between not only the philosophies of abundance and sustainability but also the haves and have-nots. Lots of people—even in the US—can't afford the newest device. “But you can make a huge difference in their lives if you can sell them a computer that works well for $200,” he says.

It helps his cause that Malone is not only mechanically gifted but loves to learn new things. For instance, he acquired much of what he knows about scooter repair from the mechanics at a company called Austin Motor Sport, which hired him to set up its computer system. While there, Malone met a customer who kept bringing in old, nonfunctioning electric scooters and selling them for about $50 each. It turned out that the customer drove a garbage truck; people on his route were throwing these scooters away. Malone soon discovered that they weren't broken; it was just that their 12-volt batteries had died. Replacement batteries tended to cost almost as much as an entire scooter, so most people junked them. But Malone knew how to power the scooters for next to nothing. He had previously recovered a hundred emergency exit lights discarded at a construction site where an office building was being renovated. Each of those lights housed a 12-volt battery, one that could be repurposed to power an electric scooter. “At this point,” Malone says, “I figure I've sold more than 100 recycled electric scooters, and I've made an average of about $150 on each one.” His profit margin on Roombas—which also often just need replacement batteries—is even higher.

Peter Yang

Malone pauses while deciding whether to take a huge plastic bag filled with hundreds of brand-new Srixon range balls, which he's just pulled out of a Golfsmith dumpster. He's got a fondness for this particular location, he explains, owing to the huge assortment of racket covers he found here when the store decided to eliminate its line of tennis products. He can't remember who told him tennis racket covers sold for pretty close to their retail price on Amazon, but they were right, Malone says: “I made a shitload of money on them.” Ultimately he decides to keep the Srixons, shoving the bag into the bed of his Avalanche.

Malone is not alone in his pursuits. Indeed, he has discovered an entire community of trash collectors in the Austin area. These scavenger entrepreneurs are overwhelmingly white and working-class, hustlers who tend to carry a ton of personal baggage and yet are “still more willing to share what they know than just about any people I've ever met,” Malone says.

Take his friend Coulter Luce. It was Luce who taught Malone to see beyond commercial dumpsters and look around the apartment complexes surrounding the University of Texas campus, especially at the end of the academic year. “The first time I went over there I found so many computers in the trash that I couldn't believe it,” Malone recalls. “Plus all this other stuff that had just been dumped by rich kids in a hurry to get home.” Luce, who had gotten into dumpster diving after losing his job and descending into financial distress, went so far as to befriend several building managers, who would tell him when a student was being evicted for nonpayment of rent. Frequently, Luce says, kids just leave all their stuff behind. “And that stuff went straight into the dumpsters, where I'd be waiting.” He claims to have made $65,000 that first year, even though he was using methamphetamine. “I was tweaking and it messed me up,” Luce admits.

Malone called Luce in 2006 after stumbling upon a huge find in the parking lot of Discount Electronics, a local Austin chain. The store was clearing out its warehouse and had hauled everything to the parking lot of its main store on Anderson Lane. Malone focused on the 40 prototypes of Dell's newest high-end desktop computer, which Discount Electronics had contracted to test. He was still loading them when Luce showed up and walked right past the computers to the photo paper and toner. “Coulter taught me to stop going after the big prize and get the consumables,” Malone says. People aren't going to need new printers that often, but they constantly need paper and toner.

As for the 40 Dell computers, Malone still considers them a missed opportunity. “They were all damaged,” he says. “The way Discount Electronics had tested these prototypes was to put them on a superpowerful heat sink for a solid month, to see how much they could take.” If he had waited a few months until the model had gone on the market, Malone estimates, he could have fixed them up with replacement parts and made about $1,000 in profit on each machine. Instead he rushed to sell the broken computers, which meant he mostly ended up giving them away. Luce, meanwhile, made a killing on the consumables he had collected.

Luce also pioneered a unique method for targeting storage units. When people move their stuff out of storage, he figured, they make a lot of decisions about what to cull. Most leave things behind, either in or near the facility's dumpsters. People who have gone through a divorce or are coming to collect the possessions of a deceased loved one inevitably toss an amazing array of valuable items. Luce explained to Malone that he could rent the smallest storage unit in a facility, usually a locker-sized space that cost $20 per month, and have 24/7 access to a place where treasures were discarded on a daily basis. “I got an entire shop's worth of power tools, all brand-new, right after I rented my first storage unit,” recalls Malone, who now has units in four different facilities. “What's great is that you have places to stash your loot and protected dumpsters that only you can get into.”


Another of Malone's trash-hunting friends was a man named Mike Miller, whom Malone calls “my personal guru of dumpster diving.” Miller, who died of heart disease a few years ago, taught Malone to collect all the pieces of disassembled or broken items, because they could almost certainly find use in different projects down the line. It's a lesson that Malone adheres to as we drive through Austin. At Discount Electronics, he collects an assortment of circuit boards, wafers, and tiny screw-down connectors that can be fitted into dozens of electronic devices. Later, in the dumpster at yet another Office Depot, Malone finds a brand-new office chair with a claim slip indicating that some parts are missing. When he returns to his office and looks up the serial number on the Internet, he will discover that the chair—which retails for $339—is only missing a pair of washers. “I'll probably sell it on Amazon for half of what Office Depot charges,” he says, “but that's still $170” for what he estimates to be a total of 20 minutes of work.

Once, while sorting through the dumpster at this same Office Depot store, Malone came across a boxy machine that he didn't recognize. The thing was brand-new, though, so he followed Miller's mantra: “When in doubt, take it!” When Malone looked up the serial number online, he discovered it was a Martin Yale business card slitter with a retail price of $1,850. He sold it for $1,200 through Craigslist.

For Malone, Luce, and the community of scavengers they are a part of, one big threat looms: the increasingly widespread use of commercial-size trash compactors.

Big-box stores like Walmart have praised compactors for reducing the volume of trash they send to landfills, but to Malone and other dumpster divers the machines are utterly evil, creating far more waste than they eliminate. Josh Vincik, another Austin-area trash hunter, says that when he started dumpster diving, he'd routinely find 10 to 20 models of kids' bicycles in the Walmart dumpster—bikes he could usually sell for roughly half of what Walmart charged, often to kids who otherwise might not have been able to afford them. “Those bikes—along with a lot of other stuff that's basically brand-new—are still being thrown out,” Vincik says, “but now they're locked inside that compactor, where they're slowly being crushed.”

It's the same at Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and any number of companies that have gone to trash compactors, says Malone, who has opened a number of compactors to look inside. He's found destroyed “lawn mowers, bicycles, Weed Eaters, barbecue pits, home theater systems, portable air-conditioning units, fishing poles, boom boxes, and a ton—I mean a ton—of electronics. You open one of these things up and it's literally an ocean of products inside.”

When WIRED asked Walmart about Malone's and Vincik's claims, the company responded with a statement that didn't address the questions directly but rather touted the company's public commitment to “reaching zero waste to landfill by 2025” and said that “total annual waste generated from our operations in the US has decreased by 3.3 percent, compared to our 2010 baseline.” Bed Bath & Beyond responded with a similar statement, while Best Buy declined to respond to questions about the compactors.

Author Humes, who has in the past extolled Walmart's reduction of landfill-bound waste, reacted with dismay to Malone's and Vincik's reports. “The fact that a company that has made such a public—and I think sincere—commitment to reducing waste is still sending so many things people could use to landfills is really disturbing,” he said. “I think it probably says more about our society and the economy in general than it does about Walmart in particular.”

While researching his book, Humes obtained what was one of the last interviews with William Rathje, the late University of Arizona garbage researcher. During that conversation, the archaeologist said that US overconsumption reminded him of the ancient civilizations he had studied, in which the moment that extravagance began to outstrip resources always seemed to signal the descent into contraction and decline. In Garbology, Humes urged a break with that historical pattern and an all-out commitment to cutting waste. But in his conversation with Rathje, the university researcher noted one big problem with this idea: “No great civilization of the past has ever pulled this off,” Humes says Rathje told him. “None.”

Malone warned me that starting out on the Sunday of the July 4 holiday weekend would likely mean a relatively scant selection of discarded merchandise. Nevertheless, he still expected to back up his claim that he can make a quarter-million dollars a year from trash. In fact, he's thought long and hard about dumpster diving full-time, only he doesn't want to give up his work as a computer security specialist. After all, he's just back from a trip that took him across a wide arc of the eastern seaboard. In New York, he says, he helped a posh fashion house defend itself from a hacker attack, “which was great, because I really liked those people.” In Virginia, he says, he was assigned by a government agency he won't name to expose any vulnerabilities to terrorist attack that might exist in its food supply chain. “I'm not going to walk away from those kinds of experiences. But at the same time I don't want to give up the treasure-hunt thrill I get from dumpster diving.”

At the end of our second night together (which runs well into the early morning hours), Malone assembles his take and begins preparing a spreadsheet that includes both retail costs and probable sale prices. He does it scrupulously, assigning no value to the items he intends to use in his shop or his various businesses (the lumber, the MDF boards, the plate glass, the office supplies, the USB chargers, and the “various software” he's collected). The big scores are six Dell R200 servers, a single Dell 2950 server, a Cisco Catalyst 5500 Series switch, and a Cisco Catalyst 2960 Series switch. He looks up each item to ascertain the retail price, guessing conservatively that he can sell the gear for half of that amount.

The total retail value of these items comes to $10,182, meaning that Malone estimates he will earn $5,091 in sales. This adds up to more than $2,500 for each night out, which, despite a good deal of downtime answering my questions, is a pretty good haul. At that rate, if he were to work 240 days a year—a five-day workweek with four weeks of vacation—he would earn over $600,000 annually.

That startling figure leads to a thought: Maybe one way to ward off the dystopia of contraction and decline that William Rathje, Edward Humes, and so many others have foreseen in this wasteful country's future is to recognize, as Matt Malone has, that while America's streets have never been paved with gold, these days they are certainly littered with it.

RANDALL SULLIVAN (randysul@aol.com) wrote about bounty hunter Michelle Gomez in issue 22.01.