One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure at NYC’s Treasures in the Trash Museum

Do you ever wonder what happens to your garbage after you put it out on the curb? Likely, you just assume it goes to a landfill, and you don’t even give it a second thought, right? Well, if you lived in East Harlem at any point over the past 30 years, you might be surprised to learn that some of the items you thought of as trash have since become another man’s treasure. And you can see it all for yourself at (what I believe to be) the most unique museum in all of NYC: The Treasures in the Trash Museum!

NYC Trash Museum Sign
One of the handmade signs you see as you enter the second floor of the garage where the collection is housed

This spectacular collection of NYC history was started in the ‘80s by Nelson Molina, who was a Manhattan garbage collector for more than 30 years before retiring back in 2015. Nelson’s route covered a section of East Harlem from 96th Street to 106th Street between First and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan, and that is where the vast majority of his collection was procured. Last week, I was able to visit the museum with the New York Adventure Club, who offers regular visits to the Treasures in the Trash Museum.

NYC Trash Museum
Looking out into the collection at the Treasures in the Trash Museum. This is only one section!

Over the years, Nelson had a way of spotting hidden treasures in the garbage. It could be the weight of a bag or the sound of objects hitting together inside, but somehow he knew when he might find something special. In the early days of his collecting, he saved items from his route and kept them in the locker room at work since garbage collectors aren’t permitted to take items home with them.

Eventually, the collection expanded, and he started taking over space at the working sanitation garage where the museum is housed today. According to Nelson, he didn’t really ask for permission – he just started doing it!

NYC Trash Museum Nelson Molina
Nelson Molina, listening to a question from someone in the group. He was so sweet and welcoming, and we enjoyed learning about some of his favorite objects in the collection. If there hadn’t been a shift change taking place at the garage, Nelson probably would have been happy to let us stay and ask him questions all day long He’s a lovely man who created something pretty amazing and special!

We asked Nelson how he decided what to salvage and display in his collection, and he told us that he liked things that were old and imperfect. The really nice stuff didn’t quite catch his eye. That all could be donated or recycled. But things that are old and unusual, like a silent film projector or typewriters, are what really stand out to him. He also likes items that are broken but fixable, and he has plenty of tools and cleaning supplies (also salvaged from the trash) that he uses to restore and repair many of the objects he’s found over the years.

NYC Trash Museum Projector
We watched a bit of a silent movie during our tour. The projector, screen, and movies were all rescued from the trash, and Nelson was able to get the projector back up and running again.
NYC Trash Museum Typewriters
I remember clacking away on my mother’s typewriter as a child. Kids these days have probably never seen one let alone used one!

Nelson told us that this trash collecting habit of his actually started when he was much younger. He would often find discarded toys that he would clean and repair and give to his siblings and later, his kids. He also credits his mother and other relatives for teaching him how to do a lot of the repair work, and he told us a story about his mother fixing a toaster with a red-hot butter knife when he was a kid because they couldn’t buy a new toaster. According to Nelson, trash can have new life again if you have the skills and tools to make it so.

NYC Trash Museum Eagle
Nelson found this eagle, which had a couple broken wing tips. He used putty and paint to make it look like new again.
NYC Trash Museum Clint Eastwood
This is another item Nelson touched up. He added a longer gun barrel and some spurs to the boots.

After Nelson gave us a bit of history about his collection, we had time to wander around and check things out on our own. It’s astounding that all of these items were thrown in the trash. (And as I looked at the collection, I couldn’t help but wonder why some of the objects were even owned by someone in the first place, but that’s another story.)

NYC Trash Museum Medals
Several people’s medals found their way into the trash

Several items really stood out to me, though, including people’s framed diplomas and a bunch of family photos. I assume that these are the result of a house-cleaning after the death of a relative, but part of me also wondered…was there a fight that led someone to toss these photos in a rage? Did someone cast off their career as a lawyer to work in another industry and just chuck that diploma in the trash? Who knows?

NYC Trash Museum Diplomas
Just a couple of the many, many diplomas in Nelson’s collection

It really isn’t just the items themselves that are interesting but the thoughts you have while looking at them and wondering who their previous owners might have been. Why did they buy this? Was it a gift? What made them decide to throw this particular item away? Who knew that looking at a bunch of garbage could cause you to have so many deep thoughts?!?!

NYC Trash Museum Family Photos
I was sad to see all of these photos, but I guess if you are the last surviving member of your family, no one else will really want your photos. Seems wrong to throw photos away, but it must happen quite often.

Nelson is essentially the curator of the museum, deciding what stays and what goes and, more importantly, how to group everything together. His approach has mostly been to group similar items together rather than focus on a specific timeframe. As such, you can wander through and see groups of VCR tapes, action figures, toys, sporting equipment, timepieces, kitchen utensils, and more. Walking through it all, I couldn’t help but wonder, what’s the next fad item or obsolete technological equipment that everyone will be tossing out next?

NYC Trash Museum Inspector Gadget
One of my favorite things from the museum. These are all parts of an Inspector Gadget toy that you would get from McDonald’s. You’d have to keep getting Happy Meals until you had all the pieces to create the complete toy. I bet a whoooooole lot of these toy pieces found their way into the trash when kids couldn’t get all the parts they needed for the full toy!
NYC Trash Museum License Plates
What DO you do with your license plate once it’s no longer valid?
NYC Trash Museum Cameras
Beautiful old-school cameras
Museum of Trash Kitchen Utensils
I’m a kitchen tool junkie, so I really enjoyed this display!
NYC Trash Museum Nautical
And as a sailor, I loved all this nautical gear!
NYC Trash Museum X-Ray Light Box
Nelson found this x-ray light box in the trash and needed an x-ray to display in it. He ended up getting a copy of his own x-ray from when he crushed his heel in an accident that kept him off the job for 18 months. Since then, he’s run marathons and done triathlons, so clearly he’s recovered just fine!
NYC Trash Museum Sporting Goods
A whole lot of sporting goods made their way to the trash.
NYC Trash Museum Action Figures
Action figures galore

We asked Nelson if there was a particular item in his collection that was his favorite, and he told us about a plaque in the shape of the Star of David that was made out of steel from the World Trade Center. Nelson had helped to clean up at the WTC after 9/11, telling us all he had was a paper mask. He was only there shortly, though, because his father became ill and died shortly after, and he was unable to return to aid in the clean-up effort.

Nelson said that despite his sadness about his father’s death, he is also grateful that he didn’t end up spending more time cleaning up at the WTC site with that inadequate paper mask, and he hopes that, as a result of his early departure from the site, he will not experience any of the health issues that many other first responders and sanitation workers have dealt with since 2001. And for that, he is particularly fond of that WTC steel star. (Apparently, the owner of the plaque had contacted Nelson to ask for it back, saying it had been thrown away accidentally, but then he never came to retrieve it.)

NYC Trash Museum Star of David
Nelson’s favorite item in his collection, this Star of David plaque was made from steel from the World Trade Center. He let me hold it, and it definitely had a bit of heft to it!

And since the plaque is still there, you can see it for yourself if you visit. The museum is not open to the public, so you can’t just stop by (and please don’t try to do so because it is inside an active sanitation garage). If you want to visit, you’ll need to join a New York Adventure Club tour, sign up during Open House New York, or reach out and try to request an appointment to stop by on your own. It doesn’t really matter how you visit, as long as you make a point to do so!

NYC Trash Museum Home Goods
Need something for the home?

The Treasures in the Trash museum definitely has a bit of something for everyone, and if you lived in Nelson’s collection area while he was a collector, you may even find some of your own discarded items in the museum. But even if you have no connection, the museum will still take you on a fascinating journey back through time. If you like antiques or were always keen on following fads and trends, you’ll be delighted by all the treasures that await you.

Have you ever visited NYC’s Treasures in the Trash Museum? Tell me what you thought about it!

And if you enjoyed this post, check out our post on Freshkills Park, where NYC’s former landfill is getting a second life as the city’s second-largest park!

Plan Your Own Visit

Where to Go

  • NYC Treasures in the Trash Museum: 343 East 99th St., New York, NY  10029

When to Go

  • The museum is not currently open to the public. If you want to visit, check the New York Adventure Club tour calendar, or you can sign up to visit during Open House New York, which is held annually in October.

Tips for Visiting

  • The museum is housed in an active sanitation garage, and when you arrive, you’ll see a door that says “No Trespassing”. Remember, you can only enter if you’re joining a tour or have made an appointment. Otherwise, you WILL be trespassing on city property (which is generally not a great idea.)
  • Depending on when and how you visit, you’ll likely have some time to explore the collection on your own. However, I highly recommend sticking close to Nelson so you can ask him about specific items in the collection. He has tons of stories!
  • The aisles are very, very narrow, so it is recommended that you do not bring a lot with you on the day of your visit.
  • Be sure to look up, down, and all around because there is stuff to see everywhere, and you don’t want to miss any of it!

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