“Before you throw something out, think about it,” says Nelson Molina. “Everything can have a home.”
Most of us are trying to do our bit with recycling, but there’s likely no one who has managed to turn it into an art form quite the way Nelson Molina did – and he has the “trash museum” to prove it.
Molina is a retired New York City sanitation worker who left the job in April 2015. Yet for 34 years, he ran a trash collection route in the East Harlem neighborhood of the biggest city in the United States. That gave him more than enough opportunity to find things that were still useful, or beautiful, or just plain weird. It also gave him a closeup view of all the trash humans make.
For most of his career, Molina kept his treasures on the second floor of the M11 garage, a municipal building with the extra space for castoff vases, unopened products still in their packages, sports equipment, working electronics or holiday decorations. By the time he retired, there were 45,000 items and that’s when he got a little help from independent filmmaker Nicolas Heller.
A short documentary about Molina’s museum was released in September, featuring the trash-truck adventures and promoting the vision for a real museum dedicated to New York City garbage. “Treasures in the Trash” features Molina rummaging through trash bags and finding perfectly good items in what is a powerful reminder that our throwaway culture creates landfill mountains that pressure the planet.
“I brought it in because I didn’t want to throw it out,” he says in the film, showing off the carefully curated collection. “It would have had to go to a landfill, or an incinerator or something, so I just picked it up and put it on the side. I was told never to throw anything out if it can be used and given another life.”
Day after day, the father of six – who says he was never interviewed for anything in his life – collected lamps and pottery and jewelry and books. There’s an entire collection of castoff watches, and an entire collection of old Pez candy dispensers, and framed paintings galore.
“When I was a kid I would go out and pick things out of the garbage that people had thrown out, old toys, broken toys,” he explains. “We didn’t get much for Christmas so I would pick all these toys up and I would bring ’em home and I would try to fix them and everything. So I was like Santa Claus to my brothers and sisters.”
The old habits stayed with him, and later as he worked his route on New York City streets, he did the same thing. He started setting up tables for all the old toys, or vinyl records, or cameras. “Then you got all your games,” he says in a thick native-New Yorker accent. “You got your Sony PlayStation 1, Nintendo 64, you got your Wii, you got your GameCube, it’s all here.”
The pieces have been part of pop-up displays in partnership with art galleries and design events, but what Molina hopes to do now is actually create a museum open to the public because that’s not possible in the city-owned garage he’s been using for decades. In its own way, the “Treasures in the Trash” museum would tell the story of the city and its residents, and the things they leave behind. There’s also the broader message of treating our objects like museum artifacts and reducing the damage we’re creating for future generations.
“Before you throw something out, think about it,” Molina says. “Everything can have a home.”