Sunday, October 12, 2008


In many communities that have a public dump at which residents leave their rubbish and recyclables, there is a swap shop. That's where residents leave useable stuff they no longer want -- books, games, china, glassware, inflatable devices, furniture and assorted curiosities. Residents can take anything they want from the swap shop and, aside from whatever fee there may be for using the dump, there is generally no charge for any of the stuff that's taken from the swap shop.

As long as you leave your share of goods to be swapped, is it OK to take goods from the swap shop to sell at a yard sale or on eBay? Or should you take only stuff that you plan to use personally?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at can also respond to the poll about this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

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Bill Jacobson said...

Hi Jeffrey

I don't see an ethical issue here. These swap shops are merely repositories for items that would otherwise be destroyed. I think the donor's intent would be that the usable items go to someplace that can use them. If the new owner can resell them for a profit, more power to him. Capitalism is founded upon the notion that one man's junk is another man's treasure. This notion that the transaction is wrong because the new owner might profit off it is wrong. How is this different from those going antiquing at garage sales or scavenging recyclables from the trash? It would be different say if these were items that were donated to the poor. I see no ethical issue with the course of action you suggested.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA
Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

First of all, I don’t think one should have to leave his share of goods to be swapped in order to “qualify” to take goods from the swap shop. When I have left items there, it has been with the genuine hope that they will be useful for someone going through tough economic times. I would think very poorly of an individual who deprived a would-be needy user of the free item by taking it to sell for his or her own personal gain. Short of paying someone to monitor the shop to limit goods to one per customer, say, there’s probably not much that dump managers can do about it.

I am reminded of a scenario that’s even worse. Earlier this year, when going out to get the morning newspaper, I noticed that almost all of last weeks newspapers had been removed from the recycling bin that I had put out the night before. I learned later from neighbors that a man had been seen early in the morning going through homeowners’ recycling bins from time to time, taking whatever he saw fit. I felt like it was an invasion of my privacy for somebody to root through empty prescription medication containers, beer cans, junk mail, whatever, in search of whatever suited his fancy, possibly including information about me.

On the other hand, I am not beyond temptation myself. Recently I saw that a near neighbor had put out a floor chair mat for trash pick-up. It looked a whole lot better than the torn-up one I was planning to replace in our den. I didn’t want to be caught sneaking it away, of course, and in an upscale community of brick homes, I just didn’t have it in me to knock on his door and ask him if I could have it. If the economy tanks much further, though, necessity may ultimately trump propriety for a lot of people. :<(

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC

Anonymous said...

First of all, the Easter Seals truck comes right to my door a couple of times a year. I have a bin/box just for these items. Please check into that! Anything large that I have for 'Open Game', like a washer or freezer, I clearly put a sign FREE.
Usually someone will knock to double check. However, when my out-of-town friends must use the dump, there are some unwritten rules of etiquette there: Potential reuseables are set aside for a week for other people. What they do with them once they haul them away is their business. Friend Mike has found lovely shrubs and metal pieces (he is a retired welder) that he could use.
If you go to the dump and find something you can reuse, take it, but do not go through my garbage cans in front of my house!

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the apocalyptic vision of Pixar's WALL-E: the world reduced to mountains of trash. The whole point of the swaps is to keep otherwise useful stuff out of the trash -- partly because it's the green thing to do (reuse/recycle), partly because communities have to pay for the amount of trash they have to ship off, so less stuff is cheaper. I say ALL POWER to anyone willing to take the time and effort to keep stuff out of the trash. If they can make money off stuff, all the better. If someone only wants the needy to get their cast-offs, they should take that stuff to a non-profit, and if they want it to stay local in their community they should set it in front of their house to give away. Anything else is free game!

Anonymous said...

I see no problem with scavanging items and re-selling them on E-Bay or even Craig's List or some other such site. Or, you can also post your finds on a swap site which specifically deals with the trade of items between private parties.

That being said, other posters have commented on not wanting strangers picking through their trash cans while they are at the curb. However, legally, once the cans are on the street, anyone does have the right to go through them. The only way to prevent this is to wait until the garbage truck is on your block before putting your trash cans out for pick-up.

There are some indigent and homeless individuals in our town that go through each neighborhood on trash day gleaning recyclable items that they trade for enough cash so that they can feed their families that day. I would not dream of depriving them of what may well be their only source of income.