From trash to treasure: The dumpster diving journey

When campus slows down and students begin to prepare to move home for winter and summer, campus becomes a dumpster diving paradise.  

Students pack their bags and cars as tightly as possible before leaving miscellaneous items in the dumpster. For a seasoned dumpster diver like Reagan Clifton, this is when the fun begins. 

Clifton spends hours in the summer and winter nights sorting through the trash to find hidden gems. Fridges, microwaves, and clothes are common finds.  

“I can totally see why all that stuff gets left behind but it is still so shocking in the sheer number of things that get left,” Clifton said.  

“Everyone’s mom and dad moved their kid in with their family van; but when it comes time to go back home for break often times it’s just up to the kid to pack up their 2006 Honda Civic and make it home alone,” she said. 

This is where bags of everything from unburned candles to unexpired nonperishable food to dressers and TVs make their way from garbage to gold.  

Clifton posts many items to Facebook Marketplace such as decorations, clothing and furniture. She encourages anyone to come to her apartment and pick through her finds.  

“I invite anyone over who shows interest no questions asked. My two-bedroom apartment is filled wall to wall with things I’ve found, I couldn’t even walk through my house,” Clifton said.  

To Clifton, the most important part of thrifting is turning someone else’s trash into another’s treasure.  


“I see a need in our community, we are all broke college students. If someone wants to have a cute decoration to make their apartment feel homely then I’ll find it for them.”  

This need spans further than just college students.  

“I see homeless people while I drive through Sylva every day it breaks my heart. If I can provide them hand warmers, or a toaster oven to cook their meals then it makes my day,” Clifton said.  

After only one week of dumpster diving, Clifton was able to completely fill the community food pantry in downtown Sylva. In that same time, she donated 7 trash bags of clothes to local women’s shelters and other outreach programs.  

By week two, she was having to donate closer to Asheville as she filled donation bins in her wake.  

“A total of 51 bags of clothing were donated and four truckloads of food. Seeing so much stuff almost go to waste makes me wish there was more places for college kids to make the choice themselves to donate,” Clifton said.  

Most dorms have donation bins open at the end of each semester, but they are often left empty as students opt for the trash or overflowing and unable to bear the weight of all the donations.  

As an avid animal lover Clifton also struggled with the many fish and reptile tanks left shattered in the dumpster.  

“It makes me wonder what happened to the pets– I mean for a reptile you aren’t going to take it out of its home and trash the tank just to take it home? It doesn’t make sense,” Clifton said.  

One evening she found a fish tank emptied of its water, but something remained. A single aquatic snail the size of a quarter was struggling to stay alive.  

“No one keeps a tank for just a snail so if you have such a disregard for the life of this tiny thing, I am afraid to think of the poor fish,” Clifton said.  

Gently placed beside the dumpster, unlike the fish tank, was a Lego set of an aquarium. “The irony is disturbing,” she said.  

Clifton urges all that are able to help. What could be nothing to one person could be everything to another.  

Clifton hopes before the beginning of move out season, the university makes donation resources more accessible and more advertised to students.