Sep. 8, 2011 at 7:12 AM ET
They say one man's trash is another man's treasure. For Todd, trash is simply a way to keep bread on the table for his three kids.
A programmer by day, Todd takes to the streets of North Carolina by night, digging through Dumpsters at drug stores and grocery stores all around his rural neighborhood.
"You would be simply amazed at what businesses throw out," he said. "I've only had to buy two loaves of bread all year. ... Last week I had a trunk full of cereal, cookies, chips and ramen noodles."
Todd slinks in and out of smelly places with low-light flashlights to evade rent-a-cops who will shoo him away. Most nights, his 14-year-old son comes along.
"I don't like getting all the way into Dumpsters unless there's something really valuable in there, but my son doesn't mind as much. He'll jump right in," Todd said. The two yearn for colder weather, when items spoil more slowly and the stench is far easier to bear.
Last month, as part of our coverage of America’s economic malaise, we chronicled the story of a young father who took a job as a firefighter in Iraq after he couldn’t find work in Miami. Then we asked msnbc.com readers: What crazy things are you doing to make ends meet? This is the first of three reader stories we’ll share.
Todd says trash bins are frequently jammed full of day-old fruit, cookies, crackers and boxed items that haven't lost any flavor from spending a day in a Dumpster. On a good day, he also finds non-perishable items that can be resold on eBay or Craigslist, such as women's makeup or coffee pods.
"I've cleared about $2,400 that way this year, and that's after expenses like gas and shipping," he said. He's also cut his grocery bill in half, he figures.
Todd and his family aren't homeless, or even on the verge of that. They're opportunists, he says. Todd, a certified program manager, keeps a detailed spreadsheet of treasures he's found and Dumpsters where the haul is good. But make no mistake: He needs the money.
"I have three kids in school and a wife in nursing school, and things are tight," he said. "This helps a ton."
Todd asked for anonymity before agreeing to be interviewed, but not for the reason you’d expect: He's not embarrassed -- he recently gave his wife roses he found in a Dumpster, and she loved them. He's afraid of competition.
"I am running into more and more competition for first access to bins all the time," he said. “I keep bumping into people when I’m out there.”
America, land of the dumpster divers.
It's unclear how many consumers are holding their noses and diving into trash bins around the nation, but judging from one online hangout -- DumpsterDiversParadise.com -- their ranks are swelling. On the site, members swap tips on finding the best Dumpsters, tools for grabbing things out of deep bins and -- in an area called “Treasure Chest” -- brag about their findings, complete with pictures. That forum is jammed with “like-new” discarded furniture, child’s play houses, and thousands of other finds.
To divers, Dumpsters are like a garage sale or antique shop where all the price tags say “free.”
Todd started his adventures in trash last year before Christmas when he was turned on to it by a neighbor. Post-holiday diving is particularly fruitful: he found endless boxes of Godiva chocolates after Christmas and Valentine's Day, not to mention perfectly good (but outdated) greeting cards.
"We saved those for next year," he said.
High-end women's cosmetics, such as anti-aging cream, make the best haul, he said.
“Women go crazy over this stuff. I found a whole box of it once. I sold each 2 oz. bottle for $60 or $70 on eBay," he said.
He usually finds more food than his family can eat before it spoils -- so he shares his haul first with his neighbor, then takes the leftovers to a nearby urban ministry church.
"I don't know why the businesses don't just do that," he said.
Dumpster diving raises interesting legal questions: Todd says he's checked with his local police, who told him it is legal in his town. But most trash bins are located on private property, and "treasure hunters" risk running afoul of trespassing rules. There are often poorly enforced, however, if at all. Meanwhile, U.S. courts have held that taking trash is not theft, and those who discard items don't retain property or privacy rights.
Street rules are more in force, anyway, Todd said. Laying low is the law of the land.
"Once in a while, a rent-a-cop will stop me and say, 'Hey, that's not allowed.’ So i just go away for a week or two,” he said.
Todd thinks he is more selective than many divers. He never takes fish, and he almost never takes meat "unless it's for my dog," though he did donate 19 frozen turkeys he found on Thanksgiving night to the church. Todd’s neighbor, who is unemployed, has lower standards. Todd thinks bad meat plucked from the trash caused his neighbor’s child to become seriously ill last year.
Damaged produce isn't off Todd’s table, however.
"The fruits and vegetables might be bruised, but we cut off the bad parts and make salsa," he said.
Todd said he takes safety seriously.
"I use gloves...I won't touch it if it's not sealed," he said. "When I get things home, I bathe them in a Clorox and water bath. There's a big bucket I use for that. As soon as i get home, whatever time of night, usually 11 or 12, I clean the stuff off then I always jump right in the shower."
He freely admits Dumpster diving isn’t for everyone, and he doesn't openly tell friends and co-workers what he does. Encouraging your teen-ager to jump into trash bins probably isn't for everyone either, but Todd thinks his son is gaining valuable experience.
"He's learning the value of a dollar," Todd said. "I give him 25 percent of whatever money we make, and that really adds up. For that reason he likes to jump into bins and retrieve things."
He's also getting a lesson in waste.
“It’s just awful what companies throw out. It’s hard to understand. They are just making room for new inventory, I guess,” he said. “But we are the master recyclers.”
Next: A laid-off 30-something lawyer gives lap-dances to make ends meet.