We've all thrown away something we later wish we hadn't; something we realized was valuable, maybe to us or to someone else. If you live in New York City, it's comforting to know that maybe it was found, and may have even made its way into a museum.
"Treasure in the Trash by Nelson Molina" is an incredible exhibit that started out as his own personal collection. The 34-year-veteran of NYC's sanitation department has been picking stuff out of the garbage for most of his career, and due to rules disallowing sanitation workers to keep what they find during their shifts, he started keeping the best odds and ends at work. Other workers in other boroughs started bringing him their best finds too. Soon, his collection grew large enough that it needed a home, and it found one on the second floor of a sanitation truck depot in East Harlem.
From a shelf full of Furbies to tables of typewriters and Buddha statues to discarded vintage photographs and large pieces of art, Molina's collection is a fascinating history of what New Yorkers tossed from 1981 through today.
How does he find all this good stuff, much of which is ensconced in black plastic garbage bags? "I have these sensors that go off if I hear something or I see something or I feel something in the bag," says Molina in the video below. Clearly interested in the stuff of (all of our) lives, and impacted by the history, usability, and sadness of wasting things that are useful, decorative, or fun, Molina shines a light on what most people don't like to think about.
His collection is a museum exhibit not because it's just a bunch of stuff, but because it has been carefully chosen, arranged and appreciated. By almost any definition, it's now art. And anthropology. And a condemnation.
Molina's collecting started early, and it comes from a truly beautiful place: his desire to make life a little better for his siblings. "From 9 years old, I was always looking in the garbage. Because I had two brothers and three sisters. We didn't get much for Christmas. So I would go out two weeks before Christmas and I would look in a three-block radius and I would look in the garbage. People would be throwing out old toys. Even if the toy was broken, I would take and try to fix it. I was like Santa Claus for my brothers and sisters. Every time I came home I had a little bag of something for them. I had a passion for [collecting] from the beginning," says Molina in the video.
Molina retired in 2015, but he still goes to the sanitation depot to visit his collection and conduct limited tours. "We have to learn how to recycle more and waste less. All these things, as you can see, I gave them a second life. So somebody else could have found it or used it. Somebody could have donated it," Molina reminds us.
Molina's collection has taken on a life of its own: An independent film called "One Man's Trash" (trailer below) by Kelly Aaron explores Molina's passion for mongo (something rescued from the trash) and his collection in compassionate detail. The film has been shown throughout New York City at various film festivals, reminding New Yorkers that there is no "away" when they throw things away.