What Happened When I Went Dumpster Diving For Beauty Products
The Debrief: If you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty, this is the cheapest way to get new make-up
Late one Tuesday night after a bowl of pasta and a glass of pinot noir, I had my boyfriend drive me to the lot behind a local retail park. Why? Because I fucking love makeup.
You may have heard of dumpster diving for food and clothes, but what about for beauty? Journalist PJ Gach swears by it. She wrote a piece that went viral on her rather unusual predilection for rummaging through rubbish bins to find cosmetics and beauty products. Gach revealed how having spotted a new Rimmel mascara in a clear bin bag outside an American pharmacy, she began hunting for other beauty products in the trash cans and dumpsters outside of department stores and pharmacies.
I was very excited about the prospect of getting makeup for free. We pulled up around the back of the retail park, and I tentatively made my way over to the bins behind Boots. My boyfriend waited in the car. I wore waterproofs (unnecessary) and thick, woolly gloves (indispensable). There was certainly something transgressive about the act; lifting the lids of the bins and rifling inside.
Since Gach started, she has since amassed a host of high-end products from Nars, Estee Lauder, Le Mer, Chanel and Mac. ‘I’d much rather dig through a bag of crumpled tissue, paper bags, detritus and “discover” a brand-new $90 cleanser rather than pay for it’ she wrote; kickstarting a culture of young American women dumpster diving for all the fancy beauty products they could ordinarily not afford. Twice
The first bin I looked in contained a large box of perfume promotion displays though no actual perfume. The second was filled with small white boxes bearing promising names: highlighter, concealer, illuminator, foundation. All were disappointingly empty. After investigating a few more, I was beginning to get disheartened; that is until I spotted two tiny tubes of L’Oreal Infallible Total Cover in a clear plastic bag beneath an empty Costa cup.
‘One night I came home with an at-home anti-aging laser kit, a $400 blowdryer and 5, yes 5, Clarisonic skin machines, and a La Mer cleanser,’ Gach tells me. Following the publication of her piece, she received emails from other women confessing to doing the same thing. Dumpster diving for beauty products, it seems, is not that unusual.
As I investigated further, I found a vibrant community of beauty product dumpster divers active on YouTube. Lacy White is one such vlogger, running the YouTube channel Dumpster Diving Divas.
‘I started diving about six months ago when I spotted a video on YouTube of these woman finding free makeup in a dumpster. I definitely had to check it out for myself.’
Lacy’s first find was an empty lipstick box, giving her the impetus to persevere until she found something worthwhile. She went back regularly until she figured out which day her local store threw out their beauty products.
‘The best haul I’ve ever had was almost $2500 worth of brand new products. It was right after Christmas time, and there were tonnes of returns due to "wrong colours" or a missing eyeshadow from a pallet.’
Lacy’s dumpster diving tactics include wearing gloves, investing in a gopher tool to reach bags at the bottom and always cleaning up your mess (so as not to alert stores to your rifling through their products). She warns of a practice called ‘souping’ wherein stores will cover products they’re throwing out with conditioner, or pour the drinks they’ve had for lunch over them, to render them too unpleasant to be picked up. ‘They know people are diving for it,’ Lacy adds. ‘And they’ll do what they can to destroy it.’
Shelbi is based in Texas and is one of the more high-profile cosmetics dumpster divers on YouTube; sharing videos of her better hauls alongside her honed hints and tips.
‘I’ve been dumpster diving for things like furniture for years, and heard about dumpster diving for beauty products from a friend of mine. The first time I went it was pretty scary. I didn't know anything about what to look for or when to go. I just made sure I had some gloves.’
Shelbi advises confidence and persistence as the key traits of a successful dumpster diver, that and protective shoes and gloves. ‘I don't think there are any special tactics,’ she says. ‘Except figure out the schedule of your store and adapt to it.’ Shelbi’s certainly had some hairy moments and run-ins with security, ominously commenting ‘my friend once found a dead goat in a dumpster’, though is still a regular cosmetics diver. Her best hauls have come from returns boxes and she dives to keep things out of landfills. I would recommend it to anyone,’ she tells me, ‘anyone who is interested in saving money.’
The legality around dumpster diving is something of a grey area, on account of some obscure laws and a section of the Environmental Protection Act stating it is an offence to ‘interfere with a waste receptacle’. Dr Sean Thomas, a Senior Lecturer in Law at Durham University, with a special interest in freegans (people who dumpster dive), believes you are not breaking the law by diving for unwanted products.
‘I would argue freegans, in general, are not liable for theft’ he tells me, ‘as goods that have been thrown in a bin have been abandoned, and abandoned goods cannot be stolen.’
If a security guard does find you, they may well ask you to stop or leave. ‘That’s about it though,’ Thomas claims. ‘They can’t arrest or detain you.’ Despite the legal grey area, I wonder how ethical rummaging around a bin for makeup is? Is there a moral consideration? Thomas believes not.
‘The better ethical choice is to take something usable that would otherwise be wasted,’ he says. ‘The environmental benefits of avoiding such things going to waste are, to my mind, enough to justify such freeganism. Especially where it is likely the beauty products are going into the bin because they are no longer fashionable. To treat something as rubbish because it is being replaced as part of corporate-determined fashion is the height of idiocy.’
Later at home with my newly pocketed wares I carefully followed the instructions on how to clean them. While the experience was somewhat anticlimactic, and neither of the concealers I found matched my skin tone, I absolutely understand the appeal free make-up and an unexpected thrill. I know I’ll be going again.
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