Sweet Smell of Success: Tales From the Garbage Heap Lost and Found

Yves here. It’s hard to think of garbage as the basis for a feel good story. But we are running this story as “news you can use” in case you are in a city where the garbage trucks are GPS tagged and therefore if you know where your stuff wound up in the trash, you can somewhat localize where it wound up in the dump.

Bear in mind that in NYC and I assume most cities, actual lost and found, as in when people bring things to the police, is entirely different. I had a wallet stolen and remarkably, three weeks later, got my driver’s license and some credit cards (by then cancelled) back. But cab drivers are also very good about bringing things back. I once found a wallet in a cab and we detoured to drop it off at the office where its owner worked (it had a building photo ID). The driver told me of other cases where passengers had found things in the cab and handed them to him to see if he could return them. One was a purse with $4000; the woman had gotten bills to buy a suite of furniture at a “cash” price and then changed her mind when she saw it live. She was over the moon when he brought it to her and IIRC gave him $200. The flip side is not everyone is so honest. My mother left a bag in a cab. He brought it back to my building, where he’d picked her up….and dropped it off with her >$300 in cash extracted.

By Katie Honan (khonan@thecity.nyc) Originally published at THE CITY on Jan 30, 2022

Dozens of times a year, regular New Yorkers put on gloves, boots and even protective suits to dive through piles of garbage, searching for possessions that were inadvertently thrown in the trash or dropped in a dumpster.

After a few hours of searching, they sometimes find their buried treasure — lucky lottery tickets, sacred religious items, cherished family photo albums, literal bags of cash and even dentures — before it ends up on a barge, destined for a dump far away.

“People find some amazing things — wedding rings and engagement rings, wallets, purses,” said the Department of Sanitation’s Sean Brereton, a deputy chief of solid waste management operations.

Theodora Adelabu knows the feeling. She was already through JFK Airport security in December, on her way home to Nigeria for her father’s memorial service, when she realized she didn’t have her blue backpack packed with items high in monetary and sentimental value.

She retraced her steps, calling family and friends who saw her early that morning as she prepared for the flight.

Theodora Adeladu with her personal and work computers that were tossed into a garbage truck along with thousands of dollars in cash, jewelry and traditional garments when a sanitation worker mistook it for trash.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

Theodora Adeladu with her personal and work computers that were tossed into a garbage truck along with thousands of dollars in cash, jewelry and traditional garments when a sanitation worker mistook it for trash. Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY
“I was panicked, I was crying,” she said. She rescheduled a flight one hour later, knowing she couldn’t leave without the bag, which had her work laptop, gold and jewelry, traditional clothing for the service — and $10,000 in cash.

Smelling Like a Rose

Turns out, she had left her car off at a friend’s house at around 5:30 that morning and left the bag sitting outside. A neighbor she asked to look at security camera footage saw that at around 8:15 a.m. a DSNY truck came by and tossed the blue backpack in with other trash.

Members and sponsors make THE CITY possible.
Adelabu rushed to the nearest sanitation garage after Googling it, found the first employee and fell to her knees, literally, to ask for help.

“There’s something taken as trash that is not trash,” she said she told him.

He helped her stand up, she recalled, and reassured her.

“‘If we picked it up, then we’ll find it,’” he told her, suggesting she get some gloves and boots for her dig at a waste-transfer site later that day in Brooklyn, after they isolated the truck that picked up her bag.

“Before I even left the garage they were clapping, and saying, go get it Theodora!,” she said.

Hours later, she donned a protective suit to search through a morning’s worth of garbage a few hours after her bag had been picked up.

Department of Sanitation workers were able to retrieve Brooklyn resident Theodora Adelabu’s computer and other valuables after she mistakenly threw them in the garbage.Courtesy of Department of Sanitation

They spread trash out into eight sections, and supervisors helped her figure out where she should search first based on the address and pick-up time.

“There were diapers and spaghetti,” Adelabu said. But she was so focused on her search, “I didn’t smell anything.”

About two hours later, she spotted a dark blue backpack.

“I said, I found it — I found it,” she said. “I lifted it up, and I fell on the floor.”

Although sanitation employees tried to temper her expectations about the shape of her laptop after a few hours in the truck, it miraculously turned on. Adelabu, who is a fourth-grade teacher in Canarsie, cleaned up her stuff, changed out of her clothes, and boarded a 9:30 p.m. flight to Nigeria.

“You don’t even appreciate what they do until you go in there and see what they do,” she told THE CITY. “It was something negligently done on my part, but they still were very very supportive.”

Refuse to Lose

Sanitation picks up 12,000 tons of trash and recycling every day across the city, hauling it off to dumps outside of the city on large barges filled with containers of garbage.

It might seem impossible to find something as small as an engagement ring in all that garbage, but the department all tracks its trucks with GPS and knows when and where each pickup is made, officials said.

Yet there is only a brief window — around two to three hours — in which a person can possibly find a lost item after it’s taken off the truck and put into containers that eventually get shipped to landfills in other states.

Sanitation workers place containers of garbage onto a barge at the Southwest Brooklyn Marine Transfer Station, Jan. 26, 2022.Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Over the last six months of 2021, the Department of Sanitation arranged 29 of these lost valuables searches, officials said.

Of those searches, 12 were successful and four were canceled, which means the person either found their valuables somewhere else or decided it wasn’t worth picking through a mountain of filth and refuse for.

All of the searches are conducted by those who lost the items, but officials help them by offering advice on where the item could be based on the time and location of the pickup, said Timothy Belmer, a supervisor and export officer with the department.

He encourages the hopeful to look for any notable items they remember seeing picked up on their blocks, like a mattress. Tossed-out mail with addresses can help, too, he noted.

“It’s like putting together a murder-mystery,” Belmer said.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. MaryJ

    An entire site dedicated to the economics, practice and philosophy of this. It’s legal too, if on public streets :-)

    “Dumpsters are usually picked up on Monday morning. This means that the best time to scrounge in them is on a Sunday afternoon because they will be full and there will be nobody working on the job site. Wear gloves and work clothes when you ‘dive, make as little noise as possible and leave the area cleaner than when you arrived. Very often the best way to hide what you are doing is to do it boldly and quickly in broad daylight with a sense of purpose. If someone is giving you the eye either casually wave at them and continue to load or just leave. Scan the site once and proceed. Looking around nervously is like waving a red flag. Referring to a piece of paper, looking over the edge of the dumpster, pulling a piece of wood out and checking off something on your paper is a good bit of street theater/camouflage that may make you look more official.”


    1. Big River Bandido

      The anecdote of Jimi Hendrix leaving the master tape of “Axis: Bold As Love” side A in a taxi is legendary.

  2. Terry Flynn

    I wonder if the glass recycling box at the end of Downing Street is full?

    Larry should inform us.

  3. Susan the other

    It is almost shocking to learn what a systematized operation garbage collection is. Millions of humans bag it up; big trucks collect it; they dump it in one big centralized pile somewhere, then they re-contain it in shipping containers and put it on a barge; the barge (no longer allowed to dump it in the ocean?) takes it to another dumping site where the containers are emptied into a humongous hole and the final step is burial and the shipping containers sent back for more. So the thought occurs without much prompting – why is it so much more difficult to recycle it all into various categories: compost; plastic; electronic; textiles; metals; wood and natural fibers; ceramics and glasses – etc. These all represent some sort of natural resource. Probably all of it reusable. Saving all sorts of other resources in the process. Is that calculated in? And why can’t all this be by design starting with the manufacturer – from manufacture to worn-out to reused – ad infinitum?

    1. ambrit

      I chalk it up to, originally, the concept of unlimited resources, so that recycling was not “necessary,” and second, today, the primacy of short term thinking in the business and managerial world.
      Personally, I blame plastics. The primary “worth” of plastics is their ease of manufacture and cheapness relative to other forms of container. Glass bottles are heavier than plastic ones, so, transportation costs are factored in by the accountants at Corporate. (When your whole reason for existance in the corporate world is to cut costs and maximize profits, everything becomes a financial ‘input.’ Externalities can be ignored, by design.) Glass can be reused, but has costs associated with that that will ‘diminish’ the net profit.
      Plastics will be as cheap as the cost of oil, for they are made from oil. When oil becomes prohibitively expensive, so then will plastic products. In my lifetime, I have seen a steady thinning out of plastic bottles, bags, and other products. I cannot prove it out, but I suspect that said ‘thinning’ process might track the cost of the raw material, oil.
      I remember reading a minor plot element in one of a Cyberpunk author’s tomes where a character ‘made his fortune’ in mining old waste landfills for the raw materials entombed therein.
      I also remember reading about a municipality in the Midwest of America that set up it’s own recycling facility. I believe that they powered a local plant of some sort by burning some of that waste stream. It also provided employment for entry level workers as sorters at the conveyor belts that carried the waste stream along.
      It can be done. All it takes is some of what is evidently one of the scarcest ‘resources’ today, political will.
      Stay safe. Be vigilant. Hull down.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      The core issue is the separation of ‘collection’ with final ‘use’ or ‘disposal’. Once you have a mentality of putting everything into one or more bins, you massively increase the cost of separation and reuse/recycling. Plastics are mostly quite easy to recycle if they are separated and uncontaminated. But that almost never happens in reality.

      Of course, a century or more ago you had businesses collecting rags, collecting waste metals, waste paper, organic material, etc. It wasn’t perfect (cities were really filthy), but it did result in a more circular economy. But we can’t go back to this, simply because due to scale virgin materials are just too cheap.

      There is a fundamental problem too with the economics. The separation between ‘collection’ and production results in a market failure. Nobody will invest in the manufacture of, say, recycled PET unless they have a guaranteed supply of a particular grade of collected PET. But nobody can guarantee this supply as it depends on what the packaging material is producing, and what sort of collection takes place. In Europe, there was a lot of progress being made in the 1990’s, and it was all destroyed by a single directive deregulating waste collection – this completely undermined attempts to integrate collection and recycling.

      So things will only change with fundamental changes in regulation – and it has to be detailed, down to the product level. Rules on what you can use on packaging (banning plastic mixes, for example, as these make it far too difficult to recycle), compulsory sectoral collection schemes (not just for consumers, for agriculture, manufacturing, etc), and strict but technically sound rules on what is allowed to be considered ‘recycling’ – its a surprisingly difficult thing to define in reality.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        our county and one city collaborate on many things, in a sort of strange(for these days) symbiosis based on our isolation and low population.
        one of these is the landfill….another is the recycling center.
        the latter was built maybe 20 years ago, with grant money…and contracts were secured for all and sundry: plastics, used oil and filters, cardboard, regular paper, glossy paper, and on and on.
        metal(save for aluminum cans) went to a pile at the landfill for another contractor to pick up.
        lawn waste and tree trimmings and cleared brush went to the landfill, too…mixed with tons of cowshit from the feedlots and auctions. they even sent one of the landfill guys to school to become a composting expert.
        as for point of use separation…the only viable way to do it…it took time…and a lot of pleading and friendly reminders and cajoling…but it became habit for the majority of people out this way.
        this is a substantial accomplishment in and of itself.

        sadly, in the waning days of obamatime, something broke with the us/china relationship, and china stopped taking the steel, plastic, paper, and whatnot.
        since they were, it turns out, the only one at the other end of those contracts, the entire system was made essentially moot. trump made this worse.
        they still take cans and paper and cardboard, and plastic appears to be sorted into a section of its own in the great big hole that is the new landfill…metal is still piled up.
        but most of it is waiting on somewhere to send it…and space will eventually run out for waiting.
        landfill guys tell me to come on down, when i ask about the enormous pile of metal.
        of course, i’d need a torch, come alongs and a lot of helpers to extract a lot of it.
        mainly, the feedlots/auctions tear out and replace their huge mazes of pipe pens every few years…the cows tear them up.
        that’s steel pipe and steel stock panel.
        this is the biggest part of the metal pile.
        i’d love to go get it*, but haven’t the time or the means.
        (* arbors and pergolas over the raised beds for squash and toms and beans and grapes and such…for shade below…as well as trellises for the vineyard(still just a gleam in my eye)…and other such structures for landscaping/shade for the rest.)

        a great chunk of what i’ve built is sourced from the landfill…or intercepted somewhere along its way towards it.
        lumber, roofing tin, windows and doors…telephone poles and all kinds of metal.
        gutters, barrels, even large plastic water tanks(up to 500 gallons)
        for a long time, this behaviour was met with derision and guffaws and whispers about communist/satanist plots(!?)
        but i’m told(and have seen for myself) that many, many others have discovered this method.
        whether this is an effect of precarity, or some weird DIY libertarian thing, i don’t know.

  4. truly

    I met a dumpster diver here in Minneapolis. He told me a fascinating story. There was an old hotel downtown that was being renovated. He biked every day past the dumpster they were using during renovation. He would climb in and check things out and find a few little things. He could only take what fit on his bicycle trailer. But nice globes, artwork, and small pieces of furniture. He had noticed what looked like a piece of duct tape folded in half. It was outside the dumpster in the grime and mud. The dumpster was getting emptied regularly but this piece of duct tape stayed in the grime. One day he thought to pick it up and examine it. It had some markings on the outside and had some heft to it. He took it home and did some internet sleuthing. It turns out that it was a monetary unit. IIRC from South Africa. From a time of instability when an ounce of gold was the best monetary unit. An ounce would be carefully measured and wrapped into a duct tape envelope and marked. These “bills” became a unit of exchange. Of course gold prices had skyrocketed and his bit of trash was now worth in excess of 1000$.
    One can only wonder who the international traveler was that lost this. Probably slipped behind a desk or into a sofa cushion. And then was found and held in lost and found but no one knew what it actually was? He had passed by it numerous times before he felt compelled to pick it up and examine it.

  5. Maritimer

    I used to live near The Lakeshore where there were numerous multi-million $$$$$$$ houses. On Christmas eve, my spouse and I would go down and get ourselves a very nice “cultured” Christmas tree. The MMillionaires would have had one Christmas at the lakeshore home, thrown the tree and other stuff in the garbage and then jet off for another Christmas in Miami, Vegas, Aspen….We used to have a good laugh on the way home with the tree where we might read an author such as Scott Nearing or some other GDP malcontent. We left the Rat Race a long time before they did.

  6. upstater

    In the 1980s our “Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency” built an incinerator operated by a New Jersey outfit, now called Covanta. Part of the deal was implementingrecycling, which approached 40% of the waste stream. Why an incinerator was necessary is beyond me (graft?) as we have hundreds of acres of limestone mining pits that could have been lined. Lined just like the landfills west of here built for trainloads (40 rail hoppers at a time literally and scores of semis each day) of downstate waste. Those dumps that sit on prime farmlands and are 300 feet high. They are the highest “landforms” north of the Finger Lakes.

    Initially recycled materials were separated. Now it is single stream, with our oversized cans are dumped overhead into the truck. Obviously almost all the glass is shattered, paper and cardboard wetted with waste and precipitation and filled with broken glass. They only “recycle” PETE and HDPE, and only certain types. Much of the recycled materials end up in the incinerator and all glass is landfilled.

    They even tried at one point to have the electricity generated at the incinerator designated as “renewable energy” for some type of tax or emissions credit. “Waste to energy”… and the plastic waste keeps increasing; the fracking industry needs to get rid of those Natural Gas Liquids and turn them into useful products.

Comments are closed.