INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSIONAL GARBAGE COLLECTOR MARTIN GREGORY
BY SCOTT PARSONS
A box of very 90s erasers. I remember these being around when I was a kid!
Martin Gregory made over twenty thousand dollars last year selling garbage. But the value of Gregory’s scavenging goes well beyond any dollar and cent valuation. On his blog, Things I Find In The Garbage, which he defines as “an archive of things beautiful and historic that would otherwise have been destroyed,” Gregory provides a humanitarian glimpse into the subterranean channels of detritus. Although the central goal is to eventually sell the items that he discovers, object history, social identity, and civic agency are all peripherally preserved in Gregory’s humble but vital work. I had a chance to speak with him about his ongoing project and discuss a few of the odd and beautiful items he has encountered along the way.
Your blog seems to be an important element in your process. Was the blog always part of your excursions or was it something that came later as a way to share what you were doing in a different way?
The blog came later. It came after a discussion with Sarah, a great friend of mine. I was feeling anxious wondering what I was going to do with my life, an “early life crisis” perhaps. She had seen some of the cool stuff I was bringing home and suggested I try blogging about it. I started Things I Find in The Garbage that night or the next day and got really into it. I owe Sarah a lot of credit because I might never have thought to do it otherwise.
You very much create and share your own narratives that stem from the objects you find. Do you see it as an extension of the history the objects already had, or do you see it as beginning an entirely new object history?
I see it as an extension of the history. My favourite items are those that still belong in some way to the previous owner, and I try to preserve that history as much as possible.
These vintage 1950s Peanuts posters belonged to an affluent family living in Mount Royal. I eventually sold them for close to 150$ each.
Garbage on the curb creates an interesting boundary of ownership as it is not yet lost to the dump but it also hasn’t entirely been relinquished by the owner. Could you speak about how the curbside acts as this type of ambiguous zone of ownership?
It’s a bit of a legal gray zone, but the consensus seems to be that anything left on the curb is abandoned and free to be taken (within reason of course). If you leave things on the curb you can’t claim to be surprised if some of those items disappear. In fact, you should be more surprised if they don’t. That’s just common sense, if such a thing exists. The only caveat here is that some municipalities may have anti-garbage picking by-laws. I’ve been threatened with fines by local security in two different neighbourhoods, both of which were very affluent. It seems that trash picking might be illegal in those neighbourhoods, but doing so isn’t going to result in an arrest. I’ve become pretty adept at avoiding these local security types, and still haven’t gotten a fine.
Do you think that what you do could have existed pre-internet? How important are online marketplaces to your work?
I think it could have. I would have likely opened a store, perhaps with the help of a bank loan. I like the idea of having a store sometimes, I think mine would be super funky and cool. However, it’s nice that the internet allows me to operate my business from home. eBay gives me the ability to get near maximum value for my top items—I wouldn’t get anywhere near that amount selling to local stores for example. It also takes very little capital to start up, which is the biggest downside to opening a store. I don’t like having to stress about money.
A fortune telling card game from the late 1940s. The person who once owned it seemed to have an interest in the occult. I eventually sold it for 130$.
Part of a late 1940s children’s intelligence test.
In addition to the objects that you find to sell, do you ever keep things that you have a personal attachment to?
In an odd way I get to know some people—most often posthumously—via their trash. This might sound macabre to some but it’s really quite an innocent thing. I just love history and save most anything related to it, and in that process I learn a bit about the person the items belonged to. I have a special appreciation for things that tell a story, and the most important parts of the story (at least to me) are the character it belonged to and the time in which it was created. I collect my very favourite of these things and save them for posterity. I think I’ll enjoy looking at them periodically as I get older. They’ll remind me of my garbaging days, my youth, and the people and history behind the items. If I have kids I expect they’ll enjoy the items too.
My personal collection isn’t large – it would probably fit in a medium sized box. It includes: a bunch of passports mostly from the 40s 50s and 60s, including one from Nazi Germany that belonged to a Jewish woman; identity cards from the same era; a stuffed animal made from real rabbit fur in the 1930s, with a note left by the owner explaining it’s incredible story; a few choice photos; ink stamps and engraving plates; and various other baubles and curiosities. Many of these items have never been on the blog due to their personal nature.
This person had a definite interested in new age philosophy. The same spot also provided some beautiful (and valuable) 1960s modernist jewelry.
A page from a book published in 1939 detailing the symptoms of mustard gas poisoning. It belonged to an Irish doctor.
History seems important in your work as a sort of background driving force. What kind of history do you think is lost through people throwing certain things out?
Items that represent the mundane, day-to-day life of the individual and the time in which they lived are the most likely to be thrown out. That’s the stuff I personally find most interesting—it has more of a story to tell than your average piece of antique silver, for example.
What kinds of socio-economic insights have you gained from seeing what gets thrown out?
Garbage picking has really clued me in to just how much distance there is between the lifestyles of the rich and poor. Wealthy people are able to casually throw out the most awesome things. It’s a privilege that comes with having money, and it blows me away at times.
Is there any political ethos behind what you do?
I consider myself “left-wing” and the environment is a huge issue to me. However, I mostly pick garbage because I really enjoy finding cool stuff and saving bits of history.
Has your own approach to what you do and don’t throw out changed since you began your project?
I’ve actually become a bit less obsessed with recycling. I used to try to recycle any small thing—a paper gum wrapper for instance—but I don’t worry about it so much these days. I work so hard saving so much stuff on a day-to-day basis that I think I’ve earned the right, especially considering how much recycling gets wasted anyways.
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