The magic of garbage


Last week a friend and I went for breakfast at a cute restaurant in the east Plateau. As we were walking back to the car I looked up the street and saw an intriguing (if only to me) pile of trash maybe 40 meters away.

Trash picking can feel magical sometimes. There’s something exhilarating about pulling treasures from garbage bags, especially considering they’re pretty much the symbol for valueless filth. It’s a lot like that old magic trick of pulling a rabbit from a hat, except better because everyone assumes the hat is full of kitchen scraps.

We walked over to the pile. I kicked a few bags, and one of them sounded great.


Inside I found three large ziplock bags filled with coins! As you can imagine it was pretty fun to pull these from the bags, particularly since I had company and was able to show off my unusual talent. As you can imagine she was impressed, and also a bit depressed that someone would throw these away.


There was about 16$ in Canadian and American coins, at least the types the coin machine would take. There were also a few silver dollars (but not the ones that were actually made of silver); six American half-dollars; several tokens, two of which are from the Quebec Carnaval; about 10$ worth of Euro coins; and three American Sacagawea dollars.

There were a few older coins as well. In this bunch, you can see a 1931 British half-penny and two 1940s French coins. The contrast between the two French coins is interesting. One was made in 1946 and features the longtime motto of the French Republic: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity). The other was made in 1942 by the Vichy France regime that was subservient to the Nazis during WWII. Their motto was “Travail, famille, patrie” (Labor, family, fatherland). The other side of that coin features an image of an axe, which you can see in the link above.


A few of the best coins were silver, including a 1967 Canadian quarter, a Canadian dime from the same year, and a 1963 American half dollar. I also saved four American 1$ bills and an 1871 Prince Edward Island penny, which was by far the oldest coin of the bunch. It looks to be in pretty nice condition for its age.

On top of all this, I have about one bag’s worth of miscellaneous foreign coins. None of them are too exciting, but I’ve sold similar collections before on Kijiji for a modest profit.


Otherwise, I saved an iPhone 4S that appears to work fine. Unfortunately it’s permanently locked to its previous user, but I should still be able to sell it for about 40$ for it given its fine cosmetic condition. Someone will want it for parts.

Easy money, right? My eye for garbage ended up paying for breakfast, and several other future breakfasts!

24 thoughts on “The magic of garbage”

  1. Another great post. I love this sentence in particular: “It’s a lot like that old magic trick of pulling a rabbit from a hat, except better because everyone assumes the hat is full of kitchen scraps.” I also love the history (coins issued by two different French governments!) that your finds often represent/evoke. THANK YOU for all that you do — your work, your writing about your work, your photo documentation of your work, and your gentle philosophizing about your work.

  2. Who throws away money? Obviously some people do. Nice that an alert person found it and can reinsert it into the economy. Finding treasure feels great but finding it among what others consider junk can be doubly rewarding! 💰!

    1. Indeed. I wonder who these people are. Maybe they’re good folks otherwise, but throwing out money is just plain dumb. Most was already in bags, so they could have just left them by the curb and someone would have taken them within minutes.

  3. People are weird. It seems odd that the same person who salvaged the toonie, loonie, 50 cent piece and quarter from an uncirculated mint set yet would then turn around and throw out a bunch of other coins. Before you send these items to coin banks and scrap, you should check them out with a coin dealer. Even things the net says are worthless can be worth more than you think…

    1. Who knows. Maybe it was a collection they had from when they were younger, and they lost interest. I used to collect coins and stamps but lost interest, so I can understand that happening. But I sold my collections, and definitely wouldn’t have thrown them out even if I was a millionaire.

  4. What a bonanza!How can the vast majority be so indifferent to this waste?Money in the garbage—more people in Montreal should pick up your trade.I hope more will do.

    1. Part of me hopes they do, but part of me wants them not to either. On one hand, the more people do it the less waste there will be, and lots more great items will be found. On the other hand, if too many people do it then I’ll have a harder time making a living.

      In the end I don’t think there’s many people interested, brave, or dumb enough (depending on your perspective) to do this full-time, so I’m not too worried. It takes a combination of a few skills (photography, eBay / online selling, various “good” garbage recognition skills, etc) to make it work, and it’s something you can’t just jump into. It took me a few years to really get a truly decent business going, and a lot of people can’t or aren’t willing to take a chance. For instance, if I failed at the eBay aspect of this business then my chances at earning decent money would be more or less finished, considering I don’t have the capital to open a store. So, it’s not like it’s an easy thing to get in to and make a living from.

      I used to worry that my blog would encourage lots more people to pick, and that I might write my way out of a job. In the end I think that was never likely to happen, but part of me is still happy that trash picking isn’t easy enough to become a fad. Not many people are going to quit their job to become a trash picker.

      1. I think there’s more than enough garbage for more people. People look for different things, there’s a lot of territory, and so on. I suspect more people are willing to take the most obvious, that table or chair, than dig down.

        And Ebay is more than a “storefront”. If your market was only local, some things might never sell, and even more exotic things might not bring in as much. There’s a limited market for multiband portable radios, ebay gives you access to a larger pool of interested people, and reaches the people who want the specific model, thus allowing for higher prices (at the cost of packaging and shipping). For most people a pen is a pen, ebay means you can reach the people who want that specific pen.


  5. What a terrific haul! Always enjoy your notes about your finds too.

  6. Thank you, Martin, I ALWAYS enjoy your posts! I live in the USA, heard you on Scavenger Life, but always learn something from your posts. We live in a small town, but no one leaves their trash bags. They all have to put their trash in provided containers 🙁 Thank you again, I always learn something from your posts!

    1. Glad you like them! Yeah, containers suck. I can glean a lot of information from a collection of trash bags, but I get nothing from bins and containers. Still, I’d open the bins in front of homes that are for sale or have recently sold. Those are your best bet for finds.

  7. You are so damn lucky. As the saying goes, somebody’s “trash” is someone elses “gold”. You certainly keep us entertained.

  8. Martin,I saw a middle-aged woman collecting bottles and cans from recycling bins in downtown near Adonis supermarket.I also saw this woman grab two or three plush toys and teddy bears from a recycling bin and put them in her handbag.The teddy bears looked to be in excellent condition.Most can collectors don’t seem to retrieve other items,but some do.In any case,people must not throw out good plush toys or teddy bears in the trash.I know someone else who grabs plush toys from the trash to decorate her living room.She has 25 plush animals recovered from the trash over the last 10 years and they sit there in her living room.I say bravo to such people!There should be studies done on can collectors and what percent of bottle/can collectors also rescue other items.

    1. I’m sure most do, but it’s more accidental. Most don’t seem to have an eye for the type of trash I look for and don’t seek it out like I do. You need to know how to use eBay, and know what kind of stuff people collect generally to do well with random items, so it makes sense that they might not notice it. That being said, I bet people would save change, laptops / electronics, etc if they saw it while looking for cans.

      I was out in Rosemont Friday morning for their trash day. I saw a few different can pickers, all of which were older women in their 60s and 70s. It would be interesting to interview them and see why they do it. It would be interesting to study can pickers in general.

  9. You are lucky you have a car.You can rescue heavier or voluminous objects more often than a scavenger on foot or on a bike or in the metro.I know a couple o scavengers who rescue knick-knacks,cans and bottles while on foot,on bike or while using the metro.They envy you for having a car and cannot rescue furniture,big pieces of art,etc.Be thankful you have a car.Having a car actually increases your income.Happy Victoria Day.Please put up more posts.Too long a gap between posts.

    1. Yeah, thinks are much better with a car. That being said, having a bike with a trailer is pretty good for the vast majority of things. It’s also better for touring neighbourhoods with lots of lights and one-ways such as the Plateau, Rosemont, and Villeray.

      The car is great and I do appreciate it. In the end though, the majority of the stuff I sell is small and would fit in a bike trailer.

      1. Furniture is the most visible, no digging required. I suspect more people will bring furniture home before anything else.

        And it does take up space, if you don’t have a warehouse, you have to be able to sell it fast. The small things you can sit on, so the return is higher. Things you hve to get rid of fast, you can’t be picky about price

        A few years go, there was a story around July 1st about someone going around picking up furniture, I can’t remember if it was for profit or non-profit. But it was
        “people need these things, people are throwing them out”. Yet people are just as capable of bringing that table or chair home themselves.


        1. True. I mostly pass on furniture because it takes up a lot of space. There’s more of a risk of bedbug infestation in furniture as well, especially for stuff like dressers, bedside tables, couches and bed frames. While I know how to spot the signs of an infestation, it’s just another factor that when combined with the space issues makes me not want to bother with average furniture (I will take nice vintage stuff, after an inspection).

          I think a lot of the current bedbug issue is actually from people taking infested furniture from the curb. I wrote a “how to spot infested garbage” (under the “resources” tab above”) post in hopes that I could help some people avoid that. However, most people don’t seem to be sufficiently aware of the risk.

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