One City’s Trash Is This Museum’s Treasure
A collection of 45,000 items gleaned from New Yorkers’ garbage sends a powerful message about our consumption habits.
You can learn a lot about a society by the things it throws away.
No one understands this better than sanitation workers, the folks who deal with our discards day in and day out. Nelson Molina, who retired from the New York Sanitation Department (NYSD) in 2015, noticed early in his career that there were stories lurking in the bulging plastic bags along his route. He began combing through the refuse for relics, and what started out as a quirky habit that provided dumpster decor (bobbleheads, disco balls, and the like) for the locker room eventually grew into an entire museum’s worth of material. Over the course of his 34 years with the NYSD, Molina and his coworkers rescued more than 45,000 items from the curbside. In a kind of reversal of the KonMari method, Molina found joy in giving rejected items a new home; out of his meticulously cleaned and curated findings, “Treasures in the Trash” was born.
Filmmaker Nicolas Heller tells the story of Molina and his collection in a short documentary released in September. The camera pans over shelves upon shelves of memorabilia that are utterly uncategorizable as a whole: an entire flock of Furbies, a pristine tower of all seven Harry Potter books, a letter from the White House signed by John F. Kennedy, a $450 teddy bear, and so, so many McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. It turns out American trash has an uncanny ability to encapsulate American culture.
Heller first heard about the “Treasures in the Trash” collection from a friend in the Sanitation Department. He thought it might make an interesting post for his Instagram account, @newyorknico, which chronicles eccentric New Yorkers. But after meeting Molina and seeing the collection in person, he decided it deserved a bigger platform. “It’s very obvious that the person behind this is very passionate about what he does,” Heller says.
Less than a quarter of everything New York City throws away is actually trash, according to a 2017 waste characterization study conducted by the Sanitation Department. The remaining 77 percent is recyclable, compostable, or divertible. “There’s so much stuff being thrown out that doesn’t need to be thrown out,” Heller says. “It can be given away or repurposed, and Nelson is a prime example of that.”
Molina’s dumpster-diving habit started in childhood, when he would fish toys out of the garbage and repair them. “I was like Santa Claus to my brothers and sisters,” he says in the film. The “Treasures in the Trash” collection is the natural extension of a lifetime of stewardship. “I brought it in because I didn’t want to throw it out or have it go to a landfill or incinerator or something. I was taught never to throw anything out if it can be used,” he says. Sanitation workers are not permitted to keep anything they find on the job, so the items in the collection are for display only. But Heller says visitors to the museum frequently ask if they can make a purchase. “It’s interesting that so many people want to pay top dollar for stuff that was thrown out,” he says.
The “museum” is actually an active Sanitation garage in East Harlem, which Molina still visits three times a week to tend to his treasures. Right now, the only way for members of the public to see the collection is to schedule a tour with the New York Adventure Club or attend one of the occasional open houses. The Foundation for New York’s Strongest, a nonprofit group that works to advance the Sanitation Department’s waste reduction goals, is in the process of developing a bona fide museum that will house “Treasures in the Trash” in addition to providing public education on sustainability issues and raising the Sanitation Department’s profile.
“Through his tireless efforts to rescue, repair, and organize these discarded objects, Molina reminds us that there are alternatives to waste, and gives us an opportunity to pause and consider our own consumption habits,” the foundation writes. “The vast array of items is a stunning visual reminder of what we value—or don’t value—and the scale of what we throw away.”
Molina sums it up best: “Before you throw something out, think about it.”
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