Dumpster Diving Diva Takes Trash to a New Level

September 10, 2018

When I first heard about a California woman who had turned her life-long habit of Dumpster diving into a business, I had a lot of questions. Don’t you?

Although I shop for deals, and have scored some great finds at estate and yard sales, I am a profligate spender compared to Karen Berg, a self-proclaimed “junker,” who’s furnished her home – and others – from Dumpsters.

Of course, I called her up to talk trash.

“My parents started it,” said Berg, who lives in the Bay Area. “My mom and dad thought nothing of picking up discarded furniture from the roadside and repurposing it for our home. It was normal.”

That lesson came in handy when Berg got married 25 years ago. “We were house-poor newlyweds. My husband was in law school, and soon we had our first baby. Buying furniture wasn’t an option.” However, fixing up other people’s castoffs was.

She taught herself how to upcycle through trial and error. “There was no Internet back then to teach you,” she said. “Fortunately, that’s when shabby chic was in fashion.”

Soon she was cruising Craigslist daily for free items, piling her three kids in the car to run and score the goods before someone else did. Then she started hitting up apartment Dumpsters. “Once I started opening up Dumpsters, I’d always come home with a van full.”

Eventually, Dumpster diving went from a way to furnish her home to a way to earn a living. She got good at furniture makeovers, and others started hiring her to repaint and repurpose their furniture. As her business took off, she started selling her makeover projects in a rented retail space, and writing Redoux, (http://www.redouxinteriors.com/) a blog featuring the stories behind her upcycled finds.

The blog drew the attention of a paint company, which asked her to make videos for them. That connection led her to a woman who later launched a paint line for DIYers, for which Berg became retail manager. (DIY Paint is now in 250 retail centers.)

“All from digging in the trash,” she said, which is just as preposterous as it sounds. For Berg, opening trash cans opened doors.

However, success hasn’t dampened her love for what started it all. “I still look in Dumpsters at least once a week,” she said. “Some people like to play the lottery. I go on treasure hunts.”

For those of you who still have questions, as I did, and who also have the courage to dive in, which I don’t, here are some answers along with Berg’s top trash-taking tips:

Marni: Isn’t it illegal to dig through someone’s trash?

Karen: Nope. Most state laws say that as long as an item is in the garbage, it belongs to the public.

Marni: Do you ever get harassed, or asked what the heck you are doing?

Karen: All the time. The funniest time was when I was mistaken for a homeless person. See, I always wear gross, old clothes to Dumpster dive. (Noted). I was at this apartment complex and a woman came out with some food and a bag of clothes. She thought I was homeless. When I explained that this was my business, she lit up because she had a bunch of furniture she was about to take to the Goodwill.

Marni: What was your best find ever?

Karen: A pair of Mid-Century Modern Danish chairs worth $1200 to $1400 each. I found them in an assisted care center, probably some grown children had pitched out their parents’ old stuff. They’re in my living room. (The chairs, not the parents.)

Marni: What is the weirdest thing you ever found?

Karen: A man’s life. It was as if his ex got really angry and just dumped every single solitary possession this guy had, from baby pictures to middle-age mementos, into the garbage. I got some nice picture frames out of it.

Marni: What’s the grossest thing you’ve found?

Karen: Ugg, let this be a warning. I took a dresser home once without looking in the drawers. It was infested with cockroaches. They migrated into our garage, and then the house. We had to have a pest company out. It was awful. Always inspect the insides.

Marni: Where are the best places to Dumpster dive?

Karen: Assisted living centers are one of the best places because adult kids are often tossing a parent’s old stuff, and apartment complexes, because they have high turnover. Best days are at the beginning and end of the month when people are moving.

Marni: How do you decide what to take, and what to leave?

Karen:  I look for anything with good lines, that is well made of solid wood (not particle board and laminate.) I don’t mind if the piece is broken. That I can usually fix. I don’t take big upholstered pieces, like couches. You don’t know what’s in them; they often smell funky, and have too many places for bed bugs to hide. I pass up cheap furniture from stores like Walmart and Target. It’s not worth saving. And I don’t take thick oak pieces from the 80s. You paint those and they’re still ugly.

Marni: What do you wish more people knew?

Karen: That they don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a beautiful home. If you shop garage sales and Craigslist, are patient and put in a little effort, you can get a great look for nearly nothing. I also wish more people would use what is right in front of them instead of throwing away good furniture. Take another look at that piece from your grandmother, and imagine what it would look like in another color.

CAPTIONS: Dumped – (BEFORE AND AFTER) This console got a second life as a rolling bench after Redoux blogger Karen Berg rescued it, cleaned it, refinished and painted it, and added rolling casters.