“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”
Whoever said “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” might not have been speaking literally — but these seven dumpster divers prove that a little luck, a lot of patience, and a high tolerance for ickiness could mean big financial rewards.
1. Curt Degerman and Recycling Cans
Recycling cans and bottles through your local curbside service — instead of turning them in for the deposit refund at the supermarket — might save you time, but as Sweden’s Curt Degerman proved, it won’t save you money. Degerman was known around town for rifling through garbage bins to collect cans and bottles, eating thrown-away food, and traveling by bike; what his neighbors didn’t realize is that he took the refunds from recycling to the stock market, where he studied up on buying and selling and amassed a $1.4 million bankroll before his death. He’s a prime example of how a little can go a long way with the right attitude (and a knack for investing).
2. Tom Szaky of TerraCycle and his Passion For Fertilizer
In 2001, enterprising 19-year-old Princeton student Tom Szaky started TerraCycle to turn out containers of organic fertilizer produced by worms for an entry in the school’s business plan competition. He used old soda bottles to sell the fertilizer, and cleared $1 million in 2006. Over the next few years, Szaky expanded the company to produce goods made from upcycled, non-recyclable materials: totes made from plastic shopping bags, kites made from cookie packages, and laptop cases made from drink pouches (among others). You can even send TerraCycle your own trash and they’ll turn it into part of their product line.
3. Nine Dragons Paper and Savvy Waste Collection
The business plan at Nine Dragons Paper is simple: Zhang Yin and her husband would drive from one garbage dump to another collecting scrap paper, and then send it to China where it would be recycled into cardboard boxes (which were often used to ship goods from China back to the U.S. — so not so good on the carbon footprint front, alas).
More than a decade after she stared the company, the simplicity has paid off: Yin is one of the richest women in the world, with a net worth estimated at more than that of either Oprah or Martha. Although she’s not open about the details of her fortune, the New York Times reported it at more than $1.5 billion in 2007.
4. Elizabeth Gibson and the Priceless Painting
New Yorkers put a lot of weird stuff out for the trash, and you never know what you’ll see on the curb before the garbage trucks get there. But for Upper West Sider Elizabeth Gibson, a 2003 coffee run ended with her grabbing a colorful abstract from a pile of trash; she found out later that it was a 1970 work by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, “Tres Personajes,” which had been stolen from a Texas storage facility nearly two decades earlier. While the painting later sold at Sotheby’s for more than $1 million, Gibson received a much smaller reward: a $15,000 thank you from the previous owner, as well as an undisclosed sum from the sale. Still, her story proves that giving that garbage a second look might just pay off.
5. Eli Reich of Alchemy Goods and Recycled Bike Tire Inner Tubes
Alchemy Goods founder Eli Reich might not be a millionaire quite yet, but with his company growing every year, it’s likely only a matter of time. Of course, when he started making durable, stylish messenger bags (and backpacks, and wallets, and more) from spare bicycle tire inner tubes his main goal was just to replace his own (stolen) bag, and come up with a cut, fit, and look that would work for him. Now, each bag includes a small number that represents the percentage of upcycled material in that bag, and bike shops and riders all over the country send their used tubes to Alchemy so they can have a second chance to go around the block.
6. An Electrician and Artist Francis Bacon’s “Trash”
While we’re not entirely recommending that you take this route to fame and fortune, there is one more tried-and-true way to get rich from other people’s trash: by choosing just the right artifacts out of your famous employer’s shredder pile. That’s the technique that worked for electrician Mac Robertson, who convinced artist Francis Bacon to let him keep some discarded painting and diaries–which, 30 years later, sold for just under one million pounds at a Surrey auction house. But this method has several main drawbacks — it takes a long time for the trash to be worth something and you need a famous friend — so we’d recommend sticking with can refunds and smart investments.
7. Collecting Scrap Metal
It’s not an accident that precious metals have a worthy reputation: collecting scraps from factories, construction sites, and contractors can pay off big. The Times Online reported that the estimated price of scrap metal for 2009 would be about $418 per ton, which gives family-owned scrapyards a sweet payday when they turn in metal recovered from appliances, cars, and machinery. While, according to the article, the most common metals are iron and steel, those are also worth the least; look for aluminum, titanium, copper, and brass for a bigger return.