Nothing brings into sharper focus our conflicting attitudes toward consumerism like the holiday season: We love stuff, but we’re also horrified by how much stuff we have, not to mention how much we throw away. That makes December the ideal month to get into makeup dumpster-diving videos, a 3-year-old genre on YouTube wherein hyper-consumerism and anti-consumerism somehow come together in one repulsive yet triumphant package. I’ve become entranced by them. Simultaneously braggy and scoldy, these videos—often shot in a dumpster behind an Ulta and numbering in the tens of thousands—seem to be an inevitable reaction to a platform whose fetishization of novelty and capitalism is already infamous. Welcome to YouTube’s Adbusters era.
Two of the platform’s biggest and most dispiriting trends revolve around buying things. In “haul” videos, a vlogger (usually a teenage girl or a young woman) shows off all the products she bought on a shopping spree. In “unboxing” videos, a vlogger narrates her reactions as she slowly removes a product’s packaging—an ogling striptease from Karl Marx’s nightmares. Makeup dumpster-diving videos owe much to both of these popular genres, as well as to the explosion of beauty-related content on YouTube. But the self-recording Ulta scavengers are also part of an emerging anti-consumerist movement on the platform that counterintuitively relies on the same thrills of newness, discovery, and collection that the haul and unboxing videos pioneered—harnessed toward yet another capitalistic end, albeit a slightly more complicated one.
Unlike food, cosmetics aren’t necessary for survival, and unlike clothes, beauty products aren’t straightforwardly transferable from person to person. Bacteria teem inside any lipstick or eye palette that’s ever been touched, so makeup divers have to contend with not only the germs inside the dumpster, but within the finds themselves. That reality gives the typical “live dive” a grimy air, especially as divers sometimes sift through food waste, used Kleenexes, and spilled fluids, often with immaculate manicures and ungloved hands (ew). Shot with GoPros, many of the videos take viewers right into the dumpster, where divers encounter testers, samples, returned items, and unsold products that they claim are worth thousands of dollars. (Much of the stuff that makes it back to a diver’s home and/or an online marketplace for dumpster cosmetics retain nowhere near their original retail value, of course. Makeup is subject to the same standards of superficiality that it upholds: It not only perfects appearance but must itself boast a perfect appearance to retain worthiness.) Sealed boxes are sometimes transported intact from a dumpster to a creator’s home, where they’re opened in dramatic fashion. Disgust at the hoarding of used cosmetics from the trash is natural, of course. (Go ahead, say “gross.”) But there’s an admirable DIY quality to many of these videos, too: Divers have figured out the alchemy of getting something for nothing. For this reason, one diver calls the practice “addictive.” And in my favorite ones, a sense of camaraderie among divers emphasizes the videos’ distinct appeals: espionage-lite suspense and behind-the-scenes savvy, all in the service of finding that perfect, lightly used object of envy.
In contrast to the stars of haul videos, divers get what’s available, not what they want. When the finds are shown off at the end, usually cleaned, grouped, and lined up on a bed, they’re identified almost always by brand and product type. Recognizable, high-prestige brands, such as Estée Lauder or Urban Decay, tend to draw the most excitement, no matter the state of the product or the item itself. Complementarity, arguably the most important aspect of any makeup product to the user, is rarely discussed. Thus, diving for makeup tends to reinforce the desirability of already desired goods. Popular brands are so much more preferable to their rivals, the videos seem to imply, that the label on a lipstick is more important than the tube’s provenance. Even here, brands inspire a familiar idol worship.
And yet the political critique implicit in the makeup dumpster-diving videos is undeniable. If you trust divers’ sanitation practices, what’s the point of spending the equivalent of several workday lunches on some eye shadow when you can get the same product for a fraction of the price? Most makeup only ever gets partially used anyway. Over the course of an average user’s lifetime, a big portion of cosmetics wastes away forgotten in a drawer or ends its life unused in the trash. So the dumpster-diving videos’ spotlight on waste harmonizes with the increasing popularity of anti-haul videos, in which vloggers discuss why they won’t buy a certain product, whether for moral, financial, or personal reasons. Capitalism is thriving on YouTube, but the movement against it is well underway on the site, too.
Beauty stores are well aware of the human raccoons crowding their dumpsters, of course. According to some videos and comments, Ulta rival Sephora circumvents divers by packing returned items in boxes and sending them to special warehouses to be destroyed. Ulta employees routinely destroy the products they throw out by breaking them or by pouring bleach over them. But the biggest threat to the makeup dumpster-diving videos seems to be YouTube itself, or rather, the competitiveness between creators that dumpster-diving lottery winners have engendered. “Mostly you’re just ripping through garbage bags, sorting through tissues and Starbucks cups and stuff,” vlogger jessicasler says of her makeup dumpster-diving experiences in a “how to” video seen more than half a million times, “so I just wanna emphasize that it is more hard work than just opening a dumpster and finding brand-new $50 palettes.” A commenter, apparently upset that all the good dumpsters have been raked over, agrees: “The worst thing to happen to diving—YouTubers.” As far as this particular protest against consumerism goes, it’s already a victim of its own success.