Here at Birds N Bones, we find a lot of beauty when we peer into the dark corners of nature. After falling in to a late night YouTube black hole, however, I was shocked to learn that some beauty exists in the dark corners of our urban and suburban lives as well. You may just have to dig for it.
Dumpster diving. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Those two words conjure up a lot of images; hippy freegans, your local trust fund punk earning their cred, Food Not Bombs activists feeding the needy from what we throw out, an older eccentric who loves rescuing and selling items at flea markets. Usually we don’t imagine dumpster divers as makeup experts, getting dirty with a contoured full face and perfectly blended eyeshadow. That is, however, exactly what I stumbled upon. There are now legions of people dumpster diving, and finding flawless or near flawless products, behind everyone’s favorite US makeup store. You know, the one that carries both high-end and drugstore products, and has an incredibly forgiving return policy? Yeah, that one.
A lot of us use makeup as a kind of armor for the day. As much as we all like to say it is solely for self-expression, the reality is that society isn’t always kind to women who don’t wear it. That, coupled with the expense of even drug store brands, can take some of the joy out of painting our faces. For other women, it can make the activity completely out of reach. As if often the case when circumstance thrusts people between a rock and a hard place, a few enterprising folks have found a different way.
Think of the aforementioned US makeup superstore. Have you ever tried to return anything there? It is a shockingly easy process, with or without a receipt, designed to take the fear out of a big purchase you may only be able to swatch on your hand. What if the color looks strange on your face? What if the product doesn’t last through a full day of wear? This policy would be fantastic, if it didn’t produce such an enormous amount of waste. Company policy is to destroy these returned products, as well as testers used (or sometimes, even un-used testers) in-store. Before sealing them in a “damages” box, employees are supposed to gouge out powders, then douse everything in lotion or foundation. Fortunately for us, not all employees have the heart to do this.
Apparently, dumpster diving for cosmetics is not a new process. It’s just that very, very few people used to do it. In one interview, an old school diver called selling recovered cosmetics “like a license for printing money.” If you ever bought makeup for a deeply discounted price at a flea market, chances are you have makeup rescued from the dumpster. Not surprisingly, the current economic state and the prevalence of internet access have brought this activity (slightly) more into the light. People can now instantly read up on their state’s laws, watch videos of fellow divers and learn their techniques, and research how professional makeup artists sanitize their products and equipment.
The divers I found were all very different people; Southern moms who were new to cosmetics, Midwestern baby goths with some enviable eyeshadow skills (and palette collections), a California college-age couple who sell products to supplement their income. Some gather on Facebook groups to sell their treasures, and these groups are completely open about the source of the products. Others give them to family or friends who can’t afford high end products, or donate them to women’s shelters. Some have stated it took up to six months to get their first good haul, others have gotten a pristine “damages” box (the Holy Grail) with nearly $1000 worth of product early on. Some of the products these explorers have found are shocking; I couldn’t believe seeing a pristine Urban Decay Moondust palette in a diver’s recent haul. Bare Minerals (especially mineral veil) and Nyx seem to be the most prevalent, but it isn’t that uncommon for someone to find a beautiful Too Faced eyeshadow palette or immaculate flat iron either.
Intentional or not, I see this as a real way to take back some personal power through makeup. Society tells some people that they need it to look acceptable, others that if they wear it they’re unacceptable. It tells us if we care about these products we are frivolous, but if we don’t we look sick, unprofessional, and unkempt. Then those same products are priced out of reach for many that need them, and on top of all that, they are thrown away en masse. I think these beauty Robin Hoods are providing a much needed service, and I’m certainly inspired to throw on my rain boots and rubber gloves to see what treasure I can unearth. Stay tuned for an update!
If you decide to dive yourself, make sure you check your state and local laws. Also realize, there are dangers when getting in to any dumpster. Animals, food waste, and broken glass are all possibilities. If you go, wear long pants and sleeves, sturdy shoes, rubber gloves, and bring a proper light. Make sure you also bring a friend, just in case. It’s also not a bad idea to wear our Mus Pendant, so you can channel the resourceful and stealthy spirit of a mouse in your explorations.
Here is a good article on some ways to sanitize recovered makeup before use, donation, or gifting.