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So maybe it’s not surprising that an increasing number of people are buying and selling luxury beauty products rescued from the trash.
"[Selling] makeup is like selling drugs," James Jugan, a New Jersey man, says. Jugan has sold items from the dumpster since 1978, but for the last few years his biggest moneymakers came from the beauty industry. "It’s like having a license to print money. It’s amazing."
Jugan, along with so many others, regularly gears up to go diving behind stores like Ulta and Sephora, hoping to unearth lightly used or completely brand new beauty products to sell online, mostly through Facebook marketplace pages. Many of the divers consider their habit a hobby, an adventurous way to score La Mer or some extra scratch. Jugan, who calls himself the Rocky Balboa of diving, pulls in 100% of his income from diving. Before the Internet, he sold his finds at flea markets. "It's a total underground economy," he says, mentioning that he only hinted to customers about where he found his fares. However, while it wasn’t so clear at the markets, in these Facebook groups the origin of these products is totally transparent. Many of them even including the word "dumpster" in the name.
Kala Wimbush had problems justifying her luxury makeup purchases while keeping up with tuition costs. About a year ago, a fellow YouTuber’s video of a dive and haul inspired Kala to jump into a dumpster in her homestate of Virginia. She started taping her own explorations, posting them to her own YouTube channel. She, like Jugan, took to Facebook to turn a profit, but felt disheartened by the highly restrictive rules many of the groups embraced (one group has a rule against posting after 9 p.m., for example). Wimbush started her own, and in just three months she had close to 2,000 members buying and selling items like Urban Decay Naked palettes and Ecotools makeup brushes. Many of the members are there for the sole incentive of high-end cosmetics at dramatically slashed prices—dismissing the obvious, large other price, of course: the item’s source.
"[Sellers] clean up their stuff and [customers] know it's from the dumpster," Wimbush says. "People are willing to take that chance because it's at a really, really discounted price."
"It’s like having a license to print money."
But many companies have wised up to the divers’ ways and started taking measures to deter more people climbing into their "boxes," as Jugan calls them. Diving has grown dramatically in popularity and corporations have an obligation to protect themselves legally. Amanda, a professional makeup artist and mother of two, started diving and selling about six weeks ago in Arizona. She says the same dumpster can vary wildly, depending on management. One week it might hold items that look straight off the shelf, the next they’ve "cut bristles off the brushes, gouged out all the eyeshadow, and is completely worthless." Wimbush says she runs into a box of destroyed product "every couple of dives," citing lotion and conditioner as a popular damaging tactic, meant to ruin items.
When asked about company protocol for disposing products, Ulta wrote: "We properly dispose of our products per manufacturer requests." When prompted to elaborate, they only responded by adding me to their e-newsletter blasts. Sephora didn’t reply by presstime.
Ashley (some employee names have been changed) has worked at multiple Vancouver, Washington Ultas over the course of two years. She confirmed the divers’ hunches. "We did have a pretty serious dumpster diving problem," she says. "One time my manager... went to throw something away when a lady was diving and got punched in the chest. She had a huge bruise. Soon after that incident we started breaking the makeup down." Ashley mentioned painstaking measures to destroy products, although she said she wasn’t sure how many of the tactics were company-wide. "It becomes a huge messy mix of makeup and useless containers but makes for a safer work environment for us because people are less likely to try and dumpster dive."
None of the divers I interviewed mentioned violence. In fact, two mentioned befriending maintenance workers, sometimes even paying them off to turn a blind eye or provide extra intel. Most of the time, running into another person while diving isn’t that big of a deal. "They just ask what I was doing," Wimbush says. "I've never had any cops called on me or anything."
All the divers we spoke to were aware of the questionable legality involved. "It's a gray area," Jugan says. "It's worth getting caught. Because the worst they can get you with is trespassing. That's almost like paying for the product. I'll take a trespassing charge once a month if I can get away with getting more product. It's worth it." A typical box haul can yield anywhere between zero to $1,200 worth of products. It’s a gamble, but one these divers keep throwing dice for.
Jessica has been employed at the same Midwestern Sephora for about three years. "What we do in my store, at least, is use returned product as testers or demo products," she says. "Sometimes we'll use them to make samples for clients. We almost never throw away ‘damaged’ or returned products. We don't really throw away products at all. We'll use them somehow. For hair tools or things like Clarisonics, we send them back to the manufacturer. As far as I know every Sephora store does the same."
A little scrubbing and hunting does nothing to slow the flow of divers willing to go the extra mile. Jugan says he spends a good deal of his week cleaning product to prepare for sales. He lays it all out on his driveway, using Windex and rags to get it looking decent again. Amanda says she sanitizes with 99% alcohol. "It dries instantly and doesn’t mess up the integrity of the product," she says, calling it a tactic she learned from the professional beauty workplace.
Although immaculate condition can be negotiable in these groups. "You can sell really damaged, used stuff," Jugan says. "Stuff that's been tested. Stuff with fingerprints in it. It has its advantages there, where places like Ebay, you can't do that. You have to put pristine product up there. ...You might get 20% untouched really good stuff, the other 60% is touched or squashed… there's always stuff that gets thrown back into the garbage." The products making their way to the Facebook marketplace go for ridiculously reduced prices. For example, Too Faced Cocoa Powder Foundation Sephora, which retails for $34, goes for $12 in one group. A bundle including Smashbox Photo Finish Foundation Primer and Smashbox Photo Finish Primer Water goes for $15. Sephora retail prices for those same two items jump to $36 and $32, respectively.
With increased visibility through the Facebook groups and more people posting their own dives to YouTube, Jugan says the whole practice is on its way out. He likens many of the younger divers to small children eager to present their found treasure on a large, public platform, like the Internet. "Before you know it, it's posted all over a website," Jugan says. "The worst thing that they're doing is they're using the company names. We're not the only ones who look at these sites. ...it really is being ruined and it's a shame. You'd have to go back five, 10 years ago, [when] I'd score 30, 40 boxes a week. Now you're lucky if you can get two or three." He says the golden days of beauty dumpster diving have come and gone. Jugan guesses he pulled in close to $250,000 annually between 1990 and ‘96 selling beauty products from the trash. "You've got these people out there taking videos of themselves in specific boxes—I won't mention any names, but—and that's what's wrong with it," he says. "These people have no idea what they've stumbled across."
Amanda, although relatively new, is also concerned about the rapidly closing window to support her family. "The best way I could put it is if I knew there was a bunch of gold under a rock, I wouldn't tell anybody," she says. "The more people that know about it, the less chances us divers have of scoring."
Competition is thriving, making what Jugan says was once an "adventure" more of a "job." It means divers have to be smarter, mapping out a selection of boxes to hit, learning managerial schedules based off disposal practices, and throwing off those hunting the same dumpsters. Jugan, in particular, has sophisticated tactics. "It's called 'put a dummy box in,'" he says. "If you walk up on a dumpster and it's loaded with product, you replace it with a dummy. A decoy. By doing that, the company might check their dumpster and see that it's not being hit. Or, your competition will come and they'll get nothing." He says he usually fills the decoys with destroyed product, his own personal trash, and on at least one occasion, actual dog droppings "because I thought my competition was hitting the dumpster."
The more people that know about it, the less chances us divers have of scoring."
Regardless of extra scent-tossing measures, these divers are now being pushed out of local bounds in an effort to score. Jugan says he drives to about five different states a month hunting for sellable beauty wares. The closest Ulta to Wimbush is a 45-minute drive, which she says seems fair given the tradeoff.
Despite these necessary sacrifices, divers continue to multiply. Opinions on this were divided between the three I spoke with.
"Doesn't matter to me," Wimbush says. "Hey, everybody go and do it. It's something that's like recycling. Usually it's brand-new stuff."
The other two very much identify with the opposite camp, but at least Jugan remains somewhat hopeful. "The bottom line is… by putting up these [Facebook groups]—like the one you found me on—these sites are ruining it. And it will be ending. It's a shame. You can always bank on razing this and the universe always has a way of hitting the restart button… Everyone else will have moved on but I'll still be here to do what I do."