What a World

One New York Sanitation Worker Has a New Idea for Recycling Trash … Turn It Into Art

Ever wondered what happened to that framed photo you threw out? It may have ended up on display on the Upper East Side. Nina Strochlic reports on the trash collectors’ art exhibit.

07.25.13 8:45 AM ET

Anyone walking down a Manhattan street on trash day knows that New Yorkers discard some spectacular things.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that some of the workers tasked with cleaning up after the city’s denizens have been gathering the best of New York City’s trash to display in a gallery. Hidden on the second floor of the Sanitation Department garage on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is the resting place of nearly a thousand paintings, sculptures, pictures, trinkets, and other treasures found along the city’s trash routes for the past 20 years.

Eagle-eyed Nelson Molina, who has been with the department since 1981, started the whole thing. He first began collecting garbage gold when he had the idea to spruce up a dingy corner of the building’s locker room with a few repurposed items. Soon, colleagues began hearing about the collection, and word quickly spread to workers across the city, as well as building superintendents, who all began keeping an eye out for additions. Today it has blossomed into a full gallery, of sorts. A painted sign displays the exhibit’s title, “Treasure in the Trash by Nelson Molina,” and it’s Molina who makes the final decision on what stays and what is discarded in the rubbish bin. “It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it’s cool, I can hang it up and I’ve got a place for it,” Mr. Molina told The New York Times last year. “That’s why I tell the guys, just bring it in and I’ll decide if I can hang it.”

Scattered among the floor-to-ceiling trove, there’s a display of baseball paraphernalia, bobbleheads, a shelf of porcelain teapots, and exotic-looking bits and pieces from around the world. Molina told the Times he finds the best of the bric-a-brac in wealthier neighborhoods and in the refuse of households rather than businesses. And while sanitation workers are not allowed to take trash for personal use, displaying the treasures doesn’t violate the rule.

What Molina is doing could be described as “Garbology,” a little-known academic discipline of refuse that came out of the University of Arizona in the late ’80s. But even before his project came to light, New York was considering creating a garbage museum for the public’s enjoyment. In 2008, a collaboration between New York University and the New York City Sanitation Department, resulted in a series of window displays on the Greenwich Village campus filled with various artistic renderings of trash. It was described as “the first step toward founding a museum for the Department of Sanitation.” Part of the exhibit was a sample of “mongo,” which describes something pulled from the garbage for reusing. The Department of Sanitation has also had an artist-in-residence, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a performance artist who once spent a year and a half shaking hands with each sanitation worker in the 59 districts.

Gotham City doesn’t have a permanent museum assigned to the treasures plucked from New Yorkers’ trash bags yet. But when it does, Molina will have a nice sampling of pre-curated mongo, ready for a larger audience.