| Jr. Feature |

My Trash, Your Treasure

Not everything that fills our landfills should really be there

As you clean for Pesach, think about the stuff you’re throwing out. Is it really as worthless as you think? Could be that some of what you’re throwing out actually still has worth. In fact, some people have found extremely valuable items that were headed to the trash!


A Whole Museum

If you were a sanitation worker, chances are you’d probably hold your nose and throw those bags in the truck without looking at them too closely.

But that’s not how Nelson Molina works! He’s probably one of the most famous sanitation men in New York. He’s been on the job for 34 years and loves it, even calling it “One of the greatest jobs in the world!” Many years ago, he began paying attention to the things people were throwing out. Some were quite unusual or beautiful.

It’s such a shame for these items to end up in a landfill, Mr. Molina thought.

So he started collecting them. His friends at the sanitation department got in on the fun, putting aside items they thought he’d appreciate, and soon his collection of discarded trinkets grew. Workers from other boroughs even started dropping off contributions for him. Of course, many items were broken (there’s a reason they were heading to the garbage!) but Mr. Molina mended or fixed over 40,000 items, and ta-da, they were good as new.

Now, Mr. Molina is married and you can just imagine what his wife said when he started that hobby (“Very nice, dear, but please don’t bring your work home with you”). Luckily, he found the perfect spot to display his collection: in the sanitation department garage on 99th Street in Manhattan. The second floor of this garage isn’t strong enough to support garbage trucks anymore, and it quickly became an impromptu art gallery showcasing hundreds of paintings, photos, posters, bottles, tricycles, toys, and numerous other objects, all rescued from the garbage. People are allowed to come and check out this unusual display, now called The Museum of Trash — a reminder that not everything that fills our landfills should really be there.

A Junky Laptop

In 2006, Nancy Cohen of New York got a phone call from a friend who said, “Guess what! I was walking down the street and saw that someone was throwing out a laptop! Didn’t you say you needed a new computer?”

“Yes! Wow, thanks,” Nancy replied. She was an artist, and money was tight. But if someone was throwing it out, it was probably broken, right? As she turned it on and tried key after key, she realized, happily, that it worked perfectly! Maybe someone had just upgraded and tossed their old one.

How wonderful! Nancy was thrilled!

Only one downside: The laptop kept getting these emails to someone called Fabrice Tourre. Unusual name, Nancy thought, and just ignored them… Until one day, Nancy was listening to the news and heard that unusual name!  Turned out Fabrice Tourre was a trader who had done something illegal, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. Could those emails in the laptop help? Nancy promptly shared her laptop with New York Times, and they gladly publicized those secret emails, which were indeed a huge help in convicting Tourre of mortgage fraud. (Pro tip: If you’re going to throw out a computer, at least clear it of personal information first!)

Old Silverware

Another American sanitation worker related that one day, when he was doing his last pick-up of the day, he got a surprise. There he was, driving along, tired and smelly. He pulled up at his last stop and realized the house had been emptied. Someone had just moved out and left a whole bunch of garbage on the curb. No big deal, he had the claw on his automatic truck grab as much as it could, but then there were still these big bowling bags on the curb. The driver, rolling his eyes at the annoyance, got out to throw them manually in the truck. But oh, no, even worse, the bags were really heavy. What was in there? He unzipped the bags and saw a whole lot of shiny forks, spoons, and knives. “Hmmm…” he thought, hefted the bags into the front… and took them to a jeweler. The abandoned flatware earned him an extra $3,000!

A Dirty Violin

One day, Joe Westin went for a walk in San Antonio, Texas (funny how these things always begin with a walk).  Joe noticed a violin among some garbage waiting for pickup. It was clearly old and covered in dirt, but he had a violin that had once belonged to his wife’s grandfather and figured they could use this garbagy one for parts. Good idea, right?

Joe brought it home and showed it to his wife, who wasn’t so appreciative of the dirty, old instrument. On a whim, he decided to have it appraised by a professional to see if it was valuable.  The dealer looked it over and offered him $1,000 for it.

Hmmm… Would you take it?

Suspicious, Joe declined and took it to yet another dealer who explained the violin was made in 1922 by Giuseppe Pedrazzini, one of the most famous Italian violin makers ever. Once it was cleaned and restored, the violin was worth around $50,000!

“Well, that was a pretty good day,” Joe said, and went home to tell his wife. She was much more enthusiastic this time.

A Weird Painting

In 2003, Elizabeth Gibson was taking an early morning walk in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was trash collection day, and people had their garbage ready at the curb, but one thing caught Elizabeth’s eye: a canvas with a brightly colored abstract painting was propped next to someone’s garbage can.

She stopped and stared. She wasn’t an artist and knew nothing about art, but she thought it was a powerful piece, even though she didn’t understand it. On a whim, she picked it up and carried it home. Debating what to do with it, she started to do some research and discovered something astounding: It was a valuable 1970 painting called “Tres Personajes” by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. Turned out a wealthy Houston man had purchased it for his wife for $55,000 as a present back in 1977. When they were moving ten years later, they placed it in a warehouse… but it was stolen. And suddenly it turns up less than 20 years later, set to be thrown in the garbage! Elizabeth was given a reward of $15,000 for aiding in the painting’s return, as well as an undisclosed finder’s fee from Sotheby’s auction house, who sold the painting in 2007 for one million dollars!

Old Papers

Years ago, Howard Hayes of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania went to a flea market. At one stall, Howard saw a really ugly painting of a dark, dismal country scene. He picked it up and looked it over, admiring its ornate carved frame. I can always throw out the picture and keep the frame, Howard thought.

“How much?” he asked.

“Just four bucks.”

Howard paid and carried it home. There, he opened the back of the frame and took it apart, and there was an envelope that contained a piece of paper with writing on it.

He put that aside, pulled out the painting… and the frame broke.

Awww, Howard thought, what a waste of four dollars! And he threw the frame and the painting into the garbage.

A few days later, Howard’s friend Marcus came over and noticed the envelope still on his counter. Howard explained where he’d found it, and his friend opened the envelope.

“This looks like it might be something interesting,” Marcus said slowly, and encouraged Howard to take it to a document expert.

David N. Redden, head of the book and manuscript department at Sotheby’s in Manhattan, discovered that the page was a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, one of only 24 copies known to have survived! Best of all, being in the back of the frame had preserved it over the years, and it was in perfect condition! In fact, the ink had still been wet on this copy when it was folded — the first line shows up in the bottom margin in reverse!

That document sold for $2.42 million in an auction, so Howard earned back his “wasted” $4 and plenty more, besides!

Some Awesome Nuggets

A few years ago, a South Korean airport janitor by the name of Kim Seon-U was emptying trash cans when he noticed a rectangular shaped item wrapped in newspaper. Curious, he unwrapped it… and realized he had found seven bars of gold! Each bar weighed one kilogram, and together they were worth 350 million won (significantly less in American dollars, only $327,000, which most of us would still appreciate!). It turned out the owner had tossed them in the garbage because he was afraid he’d be arrested for criminal activity. (Which sounds kind of fishy, don’t you think?)

At first, people were happy for Kim Seon-U because under the “finders, keepers law” in Korea, if the owner doesn’t come forward to claim the item in six months, a nice portion of it would legally belong to him.

Unfortunately for that honest janitor, though, the airport authorities put out a statement that Kim would not be keeping any of it, because “he was working as airport staff, and it is a part of the cleaner’s job to find lost things.”

So as you help clean your house for Pesach, maybe think about how some of your junk might not actually be garbage. It’s probably not worth thousands of dollars, but it can probably be passed on or repurposed. Esti Adler of Passaic, New Jersey shares that “We were once putting out an old bike, and my neighbor came and took it. She loved it! My family sometimes sets up a table outside with things we’re planning to throw in the garbage, and people can come and take whatever they want. When we come back, everything’s always gone, sometimes even the table!”

Fun Fact

The garbage truck smell doesn’t bother sanitation workers. They say it smells like money — meaning, it’s a job that pays well!

Happy cleaning and let us know what treasures you found.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 906)

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