8 Types of Trash Every Maker Should Be Stoked to Score

Computers & Mobile Technology
When you see a big pile of free parts on the curb.
When you see a big pile of free parts on the curb.

A good Maker is constantly on the lookout for free building materials. This usually means scanning the curbsides as you drive, browsing through the free section of Craigslist, and taking an occasional trip into the land of dumpster diving. When you see that pile of things that you just happen to know house parts that would ordinarily cost you a considerable sum, the elation is unavoidable.

Just because something is free or cheap doesn’t make it worthwhile. However, here are 8 finds that you can nearly always crack open to reveal a goldmine of parts inside.

1. Old computers

Photo: Derek Tsang
Photo: Derek Tsang

Computers are stuffed to the brim with useful parts. They have so many parts and pieces that can be useful in other projects, it’s kind of amazing that people just give them away for free. Here is a list of some of the most common parts you can scrounge from a broken computer on the curb.

  • Fully working power supplies
  • Lasers!
  • Big, fat, pretty heatsinks
  • Stepper motors from the CD and floppy drives
  • Matched rack-and-pinion sets from the CD drives
  • Strong magnets from the hard drives

Project example: Turn a PC power supply into a bench power supply

2. Printers, fax machines, and scanners

Photo: Daniel Hoherd
Photo: Daniel Hoherd

There are times when it is literally cheaper to buy a new printer than it is to buy new ink for it. This is incredibly wasteful and results in tons of printers showing up for free on Craigslist or in dumpsters. If you’re doing robotics though, printers and the like are sources for some great parts:

  • DC motors
  • Stepper motors
  • Optical sensors
  • Smooth rod
  • Geared motors with matching belts

Project example: Wind Lantern

3. Projection TVs

Photo: Daniel Lobo
Photo: Daniel Lobo

These hulking dinosaurs are dying out due to the popularity of flat panel TVs. This is good for us Makers as they keep showing up as totally free items, sometimes working but often not. Either way, if you need some optics, these things can be a fantastic source.

  • Massive fresnel lens
  • Smaller lenses for the individual projectors, housed within (usually 3)

Project example: Giant Fresnel Solar Heat Ray

4. VCRs

Photo: Hobvius Sudoneigm
Photo: Hobvius Sudoneigm

VCRs may be antiquated now, but they’re still available. And they have some pretty cool components:

  • A hefty and solid rotary encoder (the VCR head)
  • Linear actuators
  • Springs
  • DC motors
  • A timing circuit

Project example: VCR Cat Feeder

5. Power Wheels

photo: LvL1 hackerspace
photo: LvL1 hackerspace

Once the gas pedal stops working on these, they often end up in the dumpster. However, the drive motors and battery are often still perfectly fine. Those powerful motors may not be fast, but they’ve got decent torque for something you got for free.

Project example: Power Racing Series Clown Car

6. Radio controlled toys

Photo: Les Chatfield
Photo: Les Chatfield

Cheap radio controlled toys are everywhere now. This means that as the flimsy plastic bodies give out, the good stuff gets tossed with the rest. You can easily repurpose a cheap R/C to trigger your Arduino.

Project example: Controlling an R/C toy with a USB steering wheel

7. Tires

Photo: Jayme del Rosario
Photo: Jayme del Rosario

Tires are a pain to get rid of. You often have to pay to have them hauled off. You can imagine the relief many will feel when a Maker knocks on their door asking if they can take away that pesky pile of old tires. Little do they know, you’re collecting the raw materials to use in some pretty incredible sculpture, or possibly getting new soles for your homemade shoes. Get yourself a standard desktop metal shear and you can cut through them like butter.

Project example: Running shoes with tire soles

8. Old clothes

Photo: Magnus D
Photo: Magnus D

If the Swap-o-Rama-Rama has taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as trash fabric. Any fabric is good, and frankly, you can find some really nice material in piles of things being given away for free.

Project example: Make a garden apron from upcycled jeans


21 thoughts on “8 Types of Trash Every Maker Should Be Stoked to Score

  1. Leif Burrow says:

    Stop! I’m trying to let go of a bunch of this stuff! I’m aware of what it is good for but have been taking it in at a greater rate than I have time to use it for years! Don’t make it any harder for me!

  2. Aristarco Palacios says:

    Huaraches with tire soles are as popular here in Mx as tortillas and salsa. I never thought of clothes till I saw a cloth fibers paper tutorial. Stop telling others about all these items or competition to get them first will be fierce! :D

  3. pcf11x says:

    Ain’t no free trash around here. That is the downside of living out in the sticks. The peace, and quiet is totally worth it though.

  4. Mikael Murstam says:

    Regular old fat TVs for high voltage generation =)

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  5. Gabohar says:

    Excellent article, there a lot of trash that we can recycle.

    1. Luis says:


  6. Justin Forposting says:

    You forgot ikea-style panel furniture. The panels are an excellent source of scrap wood for all sorts of project prototyping and forms. They sit on curbs in abundance and come apart quickly with simple tools (hammer) to fit in any car.

    1. ccouden says:

      Hi Justin, I’m putting together the Reader Input section for our upcoming issue of Make: and would like to possibly include you comment. Please email me at ccouden [at] makermedia [dot] com with your name (if different from above), city, and state (or country), and if you’d like to include a full mailing address we’ll send you a copy of the upcoming issue when it comes out.


  7. Moraliae says:

    Gah! I saw a projection TV on the curb a couple weeks ago and didn’t even think of optics! :(

  8. rainydayinterns says:

    The mirror in a projection TV is pretty awesome as well!!!

  9. salsaman says:

    I’d include microwave ovens to the list– good switches and high power relays, plus power supplies that could be used to make spot welders.

    Vacuum cleaners are often left on the curb, but other than repairing them, I wonder if folks have found them useful for anything else.

  10. Tom Kabat says:

    Old Bikes and scooters! You can make great things like recumbents from old kid bikes. see woodenbikes.com for ideas. or instructables member = woodenbikes.

  11. User_1 says:

    Great article, love the gif! Yeah as was mentioned already, bikes are a real easy thing to re-purpose. Get them rolling again by piecing them together or use the parts to build your Armageddon destroyer.

    I got a better idea for recycling tires!

  12. Salvage Freak says:

    Awesome article ! Just what I do myself to get materials for free ( except time and disassembling labor ).

    By the way, Old computer Motherboards are good collection of MOSFETs, SSOP Opamps ! You can desolder these with just a Lighter (if you don’t have hotair).

    Just heat up your target IC for 7-10 seconds with the flame and bump the Motherboard on the ground and the parts will come off, rinse the IC with water and dry up using Hair-Drier !

    You can salvage 20-30 bucks worth of components form a PC Motherboard !

    1. yetanothermike says:

      …And sometimes, a box works, but ends up curbside because its considered ‘too old.’ I’ve upgraded my box at home with a RAM module and a hard drive from a non-working donor. Not a candidate for Win 10; but what do you expect for free?

  13. Yonian says:

    “metal sheer”.
    English spelling is totally illogical, but I think you meant “metal shear”.

    1. sophiacamille says:

      I agree. And yes! Good catch, thank you.

  14. Paul Sikkema says:

    Decommissioned electric wheel chairs, cordless power tools with bad batteries and riding lawn mowers. Strip off the nuts, bolts, brackets, solenoids and electric motors. Separate the aluminum from the steel and take the piles to the scrap yard. The money you get from the steel and aluminum out of a couple of old riders will pay for your next project. Everyone wins!

  15. Phlamingo says:

    Now we need an article about how to smuggle a giant TV past SWMBO!

  16. Andrew Ayers says:

    Last year I scored three large fresnel lenses from projection TVs left by the curb, plus some nice shielded speakers. One I managed to rip off inside of a minute – really, they are only held with a few screws in cheap mdf. A large screwdriver and some muscle is all you need.

    Be sure to get the frame, if you can – and keep the lens (plus lenticular lens!) in the frame until you are ready to take it apart, and re-frame for use. The lenses are easily scratched (not that it will matter much for solar apps). Also – try to save the trapezoidal mirror – it’s a first surface silver mirror – great for laser work (or as a general purpose, if strangely shaped, mirror). On larger sets, these mirrors will be backed by a metal reinforcing bracket glued in place, so be careful as you remove them. Also – if you aren’t going to use them immediately, wrap the mirror in saran wrap to protect the surface (as it is easily scratched, too).

    You’re also going to want to use a pickup truck or van to haul the lenses and such around; lay them flat in the back, ideally on a moving blanket or similar, with another blanket on top, then a couple of 2x4s spanning across – then drive it slowly home. They are kinda floppy and flexible, so keep that in mind, too.

    Just this afternoon I passed by an old computer – but I didn’t stop for it – I have too many already! I have also scrounged some of the other stuff on this list (with the exception of “fabric” and “tires”). Other great things you sometimes find is strollers (wheels for robots?) and bicycles (enough said). Sometimes you might also find a treadmill (there is usually a 120 VDC 2-2.5 HP permanent magnet motor inside – which can also be used as a generator!). Also – if you are a welder, and can get there before the scrappers – you can sometimes find a ton of miscellaneous steel stuff for art projects, robotics, or any number of other things.

    Oh – one more thing: Pallets. Sometimes people throw these away. If you can get the right ones, they can be used for all kinds of interesting projects (build furniture, do a vertical garden, make a pergola, build a shed, etc). Do your research first, though – as some pallets have a code on them that means “treated for insects and rot” – usually with formaldehyde and pesticides – steer clear of those! Also, don’t take pallets from behind stores or other areas which may look commercial. Talk to the managers or such in the area; they may give them to you – but sometimes, the pallets are stored for pickup by shipping companies for re-use, and if they go missing, not only have you stolen a pallet, but the store is liable for replacement costs, too.

    Ack – still one more thing I have found: Sometimes (very rarely) if you scrounge around dumpsters and places near a sub shop – they sometimes have to replace the HDPE cutting surface they use – and then they throw away the old one! If you can get one of these (though it will look nasty – even if clean), you’ve just scored a piece of HDPE sheet generally a foot wide, and 6-7 feet long, and 1/2 inch thick. That stuff isn’t cheap, new – and it is easy to cut and drill (works like soft pine). It’s a great material for many projects – and to clean it up can be done with a plane, rasp, or (I suspect) a planer.

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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. find me at CalebKraft.com

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