This Former Sanitation Worker Picked Through New Yorkers’ Trash and Built a $160K Collection

Lead Photo: DON EMMERT/Getty Images
DON EMMERT/Getty Images
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Nelson Molina has always seen the value in other people’s trash. “I’ve been doing this since I’m 9 years old,” he told WNYC. “I’ve been a picker from 9 years old. I have a family of two brothers and three sisters, and we didn’t get much for Christmas or anything like that. So I went out and I always picked up toys from the trash for my brothers. I was like Santa Claus to them.”

So when he first took up a career as an NYC sanitation worker more than 30 years ago, he already knew how to find treasures in the trash. As a result, in three decades Molina has amassed a collection worth about $160,000 – though in this case, the treasures belong to the city. (Sanitation workers aren’t allowed to take any of the trash they find home.) On the second floor of an East Harlem sanitation garage sits his collection, which is now known as “The Treasures in the Trash Museum.” The 50,000+ piece collection is not open to the public.

Molina studied the bags on his route carefully, paying special attention to the shape of the bag and the sound it produced when picked up. This certainly didn’t allow him to finish work early – and he sometimes worked extra time to finish his route – but it made his job more personal.

“I collect everything,” he said. “I collect something, like you said, of emotional value would be the Star of David, and it was dedicated to someone who passed away on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. And it was an actual Star of David made out of the metal from one of the buildings.”

He’s also a bit of a garbage flipper. If he found anything that needed fixing, he used the tools (that he also found in the garbage) to give them a second life. Molina retired last year, and now the department has to figure out what to do with “The Treasures in the Trash Museum.”

Check out the rest of Molina’s interview with WNYC below: