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An item the Journal pulled from a dumpster. Photo: Robert Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal
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An item the Journal pulled from a dumpster. Photo: Robert Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal

You Might Be Buying Trash on Amazon—Literally

Dumpster divers say it’s easy to list discarded toys, electronics and books on the retailer’s platform. So we decided to try.

An item the Journal pulled from a dumpster. Photo: Robert Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal

Just about anyone can open a store on Amazon.com and sell just about anything. Just ask the dumpster divers.

These are among the dedicated cadre of sellers on Amazon who say they sort through other people’s rejects, including directly from the trash, clean them up and list them on Amazon.com Inc. AMZN 0.80% ’s platform. Many post their hunting accounts on YouTube.

They are an elusive lot. Many The Wall Street Journal contacted wouldn’t give details about their listings, said they stopped selling dumpster finds or no longer listed them as new, didn’t respond to inquiries or stopped communicating. Some said they feared Amazon would close their stores.

So the Journal set out to test whether these claims were true. Reporters went dumpster diving in several New Jersey towns and retrieved dozens of discards from the trash including a stencil set, scrapbook paper and a sealed jar of Trader Joe’s lemon curd.

The Journal set up a store on Amazon to see if it could list some of its salvaged goods for sale as new.

It turned out to be easy.

Amazon’s stated rules didn’t explicitly prohibit items salvaged from the trash when the Journal disclosed the existence of its store to the company last month. The rules required that most goods be new and noted that sellers could offer used books and electronics, among other things, if they identified them as such.

“Sellers are responsible for meeting Amazon’s high bar for product quality,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. Examples the Journal presented to Amazon of dumpster-sourced listings “are isolated incidents,” she said. “We are investigating and will take appropriate action against the bad actors involved.”

She declined to comment on the Journal’s store.

Late last week, Amazon said it updated its policy to explicitly prohibit selling items taken from the trash, adding to its list of unacceptable items any “intended for destruction or disposal or otherwise designated as unsellable by the manufacturer or a supplier, vendor, or retailer.”

Control issues

Amazon exerts limited control over its third-party marketplace, which connects buyers with millions of merchants around the world. The company has said it isn’t liable for what these merchants sell, saying in court cases Amazon itself isn’t the one selling the products listed by third parties.

“We had an internal saying: Unless the product’s on fire when we receive it, we would accept anything,” said James Thomson, who helped oversee the Fulfillment By Amazon program—under which Amazon handles logistics for third-party sellers—before leaving in 2013. He is now a consultant to brands with Amazon accounts. In his view, he said, “Ultimately consumers are the police of the platform.”

New or Not?

Besides the millions of brand-new items sold on Amazon's website, some labeled 'new' may be someone's rejects.

Scenario 1

A store throws out items in a commercial dumpster, which is searched by a dumpster diver…

…who cleans the items…

…and lists them as new on Amazon.

New

The Amazon spokeswoman said Mr. Thomson’s “statements are demonstrably false.” Mr. Thomson said he stood by his assertions.

Wade Coggins, near Beaverton, Ore., said he finds items to sell on Amazon and eBay in store clearance sections, abandoned storage units and dumpsters. He said he has salvaged cardboard boxes, bubble wrap and peanuts from trash bins to package his orders.

Blemishes need to be cleaned off, he said, adding that some people shrink-wrap items to make them look more legitimate. “When you send stuff in to Amazon,” he said, “it needs to look brand new.”

Mr. Coggins identified one Amazon store and said he had another that he declined to disclose. The Amazon spokeswoman said the company couldn’t find evidence of a second store.

To list items under Amazon Prime—the subscription service offering quick, free delivery—third-party sellers send them to an Amazon warehouse where the retailer handles packaging, delivery and returns. Shipping boxes or labels often include Amazon branding. Sellers can also ship directly to customers from their homes and warehouses, qualifying for a Prime designation if they enroll in a program called Seller Fulfilled Prime.

Jesse Durfee in his garage last month with salvaged items he says he will sell online, some on Amazon. Photo: Bryan Anselm for The Wall Street Journal

Amazon merchant David Gracy, 49, who among other things resells new merchandise purchased from stores and brand closeouts, said his business partner in 2016 salvaged items from dumpsters including a batch of humidifiers and keyboards in Austin, Texas. Mr. Gracy’s Amazon store sold such items for more than a year under Amazon Prime, he said. He said he hasn’t sold dumpster finds since then.

He said he wouldn’t be comfortable selling certain salvaged items, such as food, on the site, but “Amazon’s not going to ask ‘Where’d you get it from? Did you get it from a dumpster?’ ”

‘DJ Co’ opens shop

Amazon said it requires sellers to provide government-issued identification and uses a “system that analyzes hundreds of unique data points to identify potential risk” and “we proactively block suspicious businesses.”

Scenario 2

A person returns an item to a retail store or Amazon…

…which offloads the item to a liquidation company…

LIQUIDATOR

…which sells it in a box of returns to a third-party seller…

New

…who sells the item back on Amazon as new.

The Journal applied to open an Amazon store in September by submitting a reporter’s driver’s license and bank statement. Two days later, “DJ Co” was open for business.

An email arrived declaring: “Welcome to Fulfillment by Amazon.” The Journal signed up for a $39.99-a-month account and paid additional fees, such as for storage.

Late one night several days before the store opened, reporters with flashlights and blue latex gloves visited Clifton, Clark and Paramus, N.J., scouring dumpsters behind outlets such as a Michaels craft store and a Trader Joe’s grocery.

The bins were a humid mess of broken glass and smashed boxes, a stench of rot in the air. Several products were in original packaging, some soiled with coffee grounds, moldy blackberries or juice from a bag of chicken thighs.

Among items the reporters retrieved were a stencil set, a sheet of scrapbook paper and the lemon curd. The curd jar showed an expiration date of May 2020.

The Journal cleaned and packed the three items—bubble-wrapping and taping the curd jar—and mailed them to an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania in September and October. The Journal completed Amazon’s documentation requirements by specifying the items’ universal product codes, the numbers next to bar codes on most products.

Amazon didn’t ask about the inventory’s origins or sell-by dates.

The Journals’ dumpster finds were soon up for sale with an Amazon Prime logo, available to millions of shoppers, including the listing for “Trader Joe’s Imported English Authentic Lemon Curd 10.5oz” at $12.00.

Products the Journal found in dumpsters, listed on ‘DJ Co’ on Amazon and sent to an Amazon warehouse.

After a later dumpster dive, the Journal was able to go through almost all of the listing process with salvaged breath mints, sunflower seeds, marmalade, crispbread, fig fruit butter, olives, a headband and a Halloween mask—stopping just short of shipping them to the Amazon warehouse, which is required for an item to appear for purchase on the site.

To list a sunscreen lotion, Amazon asked for a safety-data sheet. Attempts to list a protein powder, a pea-powder dietary supplement and a face sheet mask—all from the dive—elicited a request from Amazon for proof of purchase.

Products the Journal found in dumpsters and put through almost all of the listing process but didn’t ship to the Amazon warehouse.

A Trader Joe’s spokeswoman, Kenya Friend-Daniel, said the grocer doesn’t approve of its products’ sale on Amazon and that its policy is to discard an item only if it isn’t fit for sale. Michaels spokeswoman Mallory Smith said: “We do not approve of the sale of Michaels products by unauthorized third party sellers.”

Products the Journal found in dumpsters that weren’t listed on Amazon because proof of purchase or safety data sheets were required.
‘Broken things’

Amazon uses warehouse workers to identify problematic products, and computers direct workers to make spot checks. Some former employees said the daily volume is often too large to handle, with workers charged with scanning sometimes hundreds of items an hour.

“I myself ignored broken things more often than not,” said Chris Grantham, who held several roles in Amazon’s fulfillment center in Ruskin, Fla., until 2017, including quality-assurance inspector.

Scenario 3

Someone donates an unused item to a thrift shop…

DONATE

…where an Amazon seller buys it…

THRIFT SHOP

…and then lists the item as new on Amazon.

New

Amazon urged speed over precision, penalizing workers who didn’t hit productivity requirements, he said. Workers sometimes changed expiration dates for expired products in the computer, he said, so they wouldn’t be expected to perform a complicated disposal process—a shortcut noted by several warehouse employees in a discussion reviewed by the Journal in a restricted Facebook group for Amazon workers.

The Amazon spokeswoman said workers have the authority to sideline unacceptable products and that Amazon employs “multiple checks and balances in the inventory and picking process to ensure quality control standards are upheld.” Regarding worker-productivity requirements, she said “performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time.”

Jesse Durfee said he has used Amazon to sell toys, videogames, electronics and trinkets from dumpsters including bins behind Michaels and GameStop stores. The 26-year-old in Torrington, Conn., said one of his favorite places to find things to list on Amazon is his town dump. He said he lists his dumpster finds as used and declined to identify his storefront, saying he fears other sellers might try to sabotage him.

‘I started with dumpster diving because I had no money to buy inventory,’ says Mr. Durfee, here on Amazon’s site last month. Photo: Bryan Anselm for The Wall Street Journal

In a 2017 YouTube video, he tests out television remote controls he said he found in a dumpster and tells viewers they can wash off corroded battery compartments with baking soda and water.

He said he opened his Amazon store six years ago after realizing it was more lucrative to resell inventory than work as a photographer. “I started with dumpster diving because I had no money to buy inventory,” he said, and branched into buying at thrift stores and discount-store clearance sections for items to sell on Amazon.

Share Your Thoughts

Should Amazon be allowed to let just about anyone sell just about anything on its platform? Join the conversation below.

“I’ll go to pawnshops, I’ll go dumpster diving,” he said. “I’m one of those people who does everything.”

Negative comments

Some sellers on Amazon’s internal discussion boards have voiced concerns about garbage showing up on the site. One, in a post titled “Dumpster Divers Overrunning Beauty Category,” wrote of items in bad condition that resulted in complaints directed at the poster and other sellers in the category.

The Amazon spokeswoman said the seller’s characterization of the category as being overrun “is wrong and baseless.”

To see if Amazon customers shared such concerns, the Journal analyzed about 45,000 comments posted on Amazon in 2018 and 2019. It found nearly 8,400 comments on 4,300 listings for foods, makeup and over-the-counter medications with keywords suggesting they were unsealed, expired, moldy, unnaturally sticky or problematic in some other way.

About 544 of the 4,300 products were promoted as Amazon’s Choice, which many consumers take to be the company’s endorsement. Amazon’s website says the label reflects a combination of factors such as ratings, pricing and shipping time.

Among the 4,300 listing the Journal reviewed, 241—including generic ibuprofen, Sun Chips and an Amazon’s Choice face lotion—had at least five reviews from different customers suggesting the item was used or expired.

One reviewer said lipstick arrived with no packaging, marred and mildewed. Five reviewers said they received a protein bar sprouting white fungus, one writing: “My daughter has eaten a handful of them and called me into the kitchen today to show me that there was MOLD on the bar she had eaten half of!!!!!!”

Last year, Eileen Anastassopoulos bought her son’s favorite grape-flavored applesauce from an Amazon third-party seller, she told the Journal. The squeezable packets had expired seven months before, said the 39-year-old mother, who left a review with a photo showing its November 2017 “best before” date to warn others.

Scenario 4

A person returns an item to an Amazon warehouse…

…where a worker determines that it can be resold. The item is mixed in with inventory…

New

…and sent to another Amazon customer as new.

Amazon sent a new shipment after she complained, she said, but “if I wasn’t a diligent person checking expiration dates I could have had an issue with my son.” The Journal couldn’t identify her seller but did find another seller of the same applesauce that received recent reviews alleging the sale of expired or damaged products.

The Amazon spokeswoman said the company investigates product reviews and takes corrective actions as needed. Of those the Journal identified, she said, “the product reviews where customers expressed issues with quality represents less than 0.01% of orders on those products.”

She said Amazon uses “a combination of artificial intelligence and manual systems to monitor for product quality and safety concerns in our store” and that if a product fails its guidelines, Amazon will “take appropriate action against the seller, which may include removal of their account.”

Amazon customers don’t always have total control over whom they buy from. A default setting in an Amazon account known as “commingling” can mean customers think they are buying from one merchant but end up getting the product from another—if, say, another seller’s product is in a warehouse closer to the buyer.

The spokeswoman said the process “allows Amazon to efficiently process, fulfill, and ship customer orders.”

Returns for sale

One class of third-party Amazon merchants buys inventory from liquidation companies, which sell bathtub-sized cardboard boxes on pallets full of products typically removed from big retailers’ shelves or warehouses, or full of returned goods. The products often arrive in the boxes uninspected and piled loose.

Heather Hooks, 40, buys boxes of goods from liquidation companies to resell on Amazon. Photo: Jeff Bush for The Wall Street Journal

Heather Hooks, 40, said she has sold thousands of goods on Amazon from liquidators, mostly returns such as Lego sets, Tylenol pills, Hanes undergarments and Maybelline makeup. She estimated that about 75% of the products she buys out of liquidation are flawless and said she sells those on Amazon as new. The rest she sells on eBay and other sites, she said, labeling their condition.

Sellers say eBay has fewer restrictions on what can be listed as used. An eBay Inc. spokesperson said the site requires sellers to describe listings accurately, including whether items are used or damaged.

Ms. Hooks, who lives near St. Louis, said she makes more than $20,000 a year on Amazon selling this way and profits from a YouTube account, where she chronicles her business. Her storefront boasts hundreds of items, including toys, candy, toiletries, makeup and clothes. Amazon temporarily banned her from selling about three years ago, she said, because a brand complained she was listing its product as an unauthorized seller.

‘I’m extremely picky now,’ says Ms. Hooks of the condition of items she lists on Amazon. Photo: Jeff Bush for The Wall Street Journal

“I’m extremely picky now,” she said, saying she inspects each product to see if seals are broken or parts are missing. “Even if it has a ding on the box, I won’t send it.”

Of dumpster diving, she said: “That’s not my scene,” but “some people think liquidation is a little bit like that.”

On Amazon’s internal discussion board, one seller complained Amazon itself was reselling returned goods. This seller, who lists earrings, wrote in a May 2018 post that Amazon said it sometimes repackages products that customers have returned and mixes them back with inventory if warehouse workers approve. This merchant wrote of asking Amazon to stop reselling the merchant’s returned earrings but said the company justified it by saying the items were inspected at the warehouse.

Scenario 5

Someone stops paying bills for a storage unit…

…the contents of which an Amazon seller buys at auction…

Winner!

BID

…and then lists unopened items as new on Amazon.

New

“I hope one day I don’t have to panic,” the merchant wrote, “every time someone returns a pair of earrings in fear that Amazon will ship it out to the next person, along with any unhygienic diseases that may be attached to it.”

The Amazon spokeswoman said the company subjects all returns to a rigorous inspection “and all items reintroduced to inventory as new meet the same high standards as what a vendor or seller sends us directly.”

Some Amazon sellers said they buy discarded Amazon returns from liquidators and then relist them on Amazon. Amazon said it works with liquidators and that items complying with its policies are allowed for sale on Amazon.

The lemon curd

The three dumpster finds the Journal sent to the Amazon warehouse stayed on the DJ Co store for only a few seconds—the Journal immediately bought them so nobody else could.

The lemon curd for sale on DJ Co’s Amazon site.

All came back with a return address of an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky. The stencil set was bent. The paper arrived in good condition. Both arrived in Amazon packaging, not the packaging in which the Journal sent them.

The Trader Joe’s lemon curd came back in the box the Journal packaged it in to send to Amazon, still in the same bubble wrap and tape. The only thing Amazon appeared to have done was to affix its own shipping label atop the Journal’s.

DJ Co remained open until late last week, though not stocked.

On Friday, Amazon said it updated its policy to ban items from the trash. The spokeswoman said: “Sourcing items from the trash has always been inconsistent with Amazon’s high expectations of its sellers and prohibited by the Seller Code of Conduct on Amazon, which requires that sellers act fairly and honestly. We’ve updated our policy to more explicitly prohibit this type of behavior.” Asked how it will enforce the new rule, Amazon said it expanded its existing verification efforts, including increased documentation spot checks.

On Saturday, the Journal received an email from Amazon:

“Your account has been closed due to violations of our Seller Policies and Seller Code of Conduct. Specifically, we have learned that your have offered products that were sourced in a manner that does not meet Amazon’s high bar for customer trust and safety.”

Write to Khadeeja Safdar at khadeeja.safdar@wsj.com and Shane Shifflett at Shane.Shifflett@wsj.com

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