Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Courtesy of DSNY. 

One man’s garbage is another man’s gold. How New York City deals with waste has changed drastically. New methods in recycling have been extraordinary in transforming city life, while trash is also an amazing cultural archive. The City Reliquary’s new exhibition NYC Trash! Past, Present & Future explores the story behind New York City’s solid waster, and examines the ways in which residents of the city are reusing and recycling. 

Waste management in New York has evolved for the better since the squalid conditions waste created in the city into during the 19th century as documented extensively by Jacob Riis. Soon after, landfills became the home of the cities garbage, filling Dead Horse Bay and Fresh Kills on Staten Island, sparking environmental concerns. The Department of Sanitation, founded in 1881, has worked to move the city’s waste away from the city, with more recent efforts that take into account trash’s environmental impact. While New Yorkers themselves are working harder to minimize their carbon footprint by reusing and recycling in inventive ways.

Inside Treasure in the Trash Museum

NYC Trash! Past, Present & Future explores that inventiveness by profiling seven artists and nonprofits in the ways they consider waste management both now and in the future. The exhibition also features a selection of objects that exemplify trash as a cultural archive from Nelson Molina’s Treasures in the Trash Museum, a carefully curated assortment of oddities compiled Molina, a sanitation worker, over the course of 33 years on the job.

Jacob A. Riis, “Under the Dump at West 47th Street,” ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. Courtesy of the City Reliquary. 

We may forget about our trash as soon as we put it out on the sidewalk in New York, but it all goes somewhere. As we’ve seen, waste can have a detrimental affect on society if not dealt with properly. And from Molina’s Trash Museum, another man’s trash can become another man’s gold, making us think twice about what we throw out, question if it’s truly waste, and perhaps seek other methods of disposal that could be more beneficial to society.

NYC Trash! is a wonderful chance to see artists and nonprofits at work handling trash. An opening brunch reception at noon on Sunday, November 12 will include complimentary coffee and light refreshments with $5 admission.

The City Reliquary Museum & Civic Organization is located at 370 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, NY. NYC Trash! Past, Present & Future will be on view through April 29, 2018.

Next, read more about Molina’s Treasures in the Trash Museum and check out 10 More Obscure NYC Museums