How Philly's discarded shoes are saving lives in Haiti and Africa

It’s trash day in North Philadelphia, and garbage bags are heaped along the curb. It’s not the best look for this rowhouse block.

But, surveying the scene, Ogbonna Hagins is gleeful.

“This,” he says, “is money.” 

He pulls over his minivan for a closer look. Here are two pairs of sneakers, almost new-looking. There’s a suitcase, whose telescoping handle works perfectly and wheels glide easily into a spin. Sheathed in black plastic, there’s a three-foot-tall Superman doll; Hagins will later find similar ones listed for between $25 and $60 on eBay.

It all goes in the van, joining a ramshackle abundance of trash bags bulging with assorted shoes, bicycle parts, pie pans, radios, record players and antiques of questionable provenance. (Fortunately, a half-dozen pine-tree air fresheners also sway from the rear-view mirror.)

Scrapping is a time-honored, if marginal, Philadelphia tradition. But Hagins, 51 — a Grays Ferry resident, one-time state House candidate (he did not survive a petition challenge), podcaster, and tireless networker with a self-styled, superhero-like moniker, Philly Green Man — is on a mission to elevate the trade, which he sees as both art and science. Pretty much anything you’ve tossed out on trash day, he says, has some value waiting to be unlocked.

And Philadelphia’s discards, rescued by Hagins’ discerning hand, have a surprising afterlife.

Some things he can fix and sell at a flea market, at auction or eBay. The very best clothes can be sold to Buffalo Exchange. Gold and silver — he regularly finds jewelry in the trash — goes to a buyer on Jewelers Row.

But other things have worth, too. The broken lamp you threw away (if it was indeed broken) is worth 50 cents a pound. The cracked flat screen TV has a motherboard, worth $1 a pound. A DVD player is even better: The hard drive could fetch $15 or $20.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Ogbonna Hagins finds a DVD set on Ninth Street in South Philadelphia.

Still other finds travel much farther, to sustain families in places like Haiti and Sierra Leone.

When President Trump’s “s–hole countries” remark made headlines this year, Hagins was particularly agitated. For the past decade, he has been helping immigrants who’ve settled in Philadelphia send shoes to their families in these long-impoverished, and lately defamed, regions.

Hagins says he finds 50 to 60 pairs of shoes per day. He was selling them at a flea market when a West African man offered to purchase his entire inventory for $1 a pair. If his family back home in Sierra Leone could sell the shoes, instead of just sending money home he could help them build a business of their own.

It turned out lots of other immigrants had the same idea — and Hagins wants to supply shoes to all of them.

Jean Duret, 39, of Overbrook, sends about 100 pairs to his mother and brother in Haiti every two or three months. Duret, who works in human resources, has his own family to support here. But he also feels a responsibility to his relatives in Port-au-Prince. They can take Hagins’ trash-picked shoes to the market, and sell them for $3 to $5 a pair.

There are not really jobs available. That’s why we have to intervene,” he said. “It gives them the opportunity to survive.”

Marcelline Mayaku, 62, who lives in North Philadelphia, said it’s a life-or-death matter.

Mayaku, a former organizer who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a war in 1997, pays $2 to $4 for shoes that she distributes in villages around the country through her nonprofit, Congolese Association of Diabetics Bringing Hope. She aims to gather 10,000 pairs for her next trip back, in June.

She resolved to take on the issue after meeting a diabetic man who had stepped on a nail, leading to a life-threatening case of gangrene. “It hurts to see people having that kind of life,” she said.

The challenge in efforts like this is obtaining a container. Mayaku pays $7,800 per shipment. Hagins said he’s trying to figure out how to get copy machines and printers — items he finds in abundance — to a group of young men in the Gambia. If they could start a copy shop, they’ve told him, they might escape the fate of many of their friends, economic refugees who became caught up in the Libyan slave trade.

In contrast, poverty here in the U.S. doesn’t quite make sense to Hagins.

“Most of the areas I go to are supposedly impoverished areas, but to see all the things that are thrown away, I can see why. We’re marketed to like crazy and we get sucked into, ‘You have to have the latest thing.”

While not quite a “freegan,” Hagins has decorated his home, clothed his family and, frequently, set his dinner table with rescued finds. In past lives, he was a schoolteacher and later a taxi driver. He likes scrapping better.

“I’m free,” he said. He can pick up his 8-year-old son from elementary school, or go see his two sons who are in college when they have music recitals.

By opting out of consumer culture, he said, “I capitalize on the consumerism in America, and the waste.”

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
Ogbonna Hagins, a/k/a Philly Green Man, hunts through trash for hidden treasures.

The trend of Buy Nothing groups on Facebook and charity drop boxes around the city have not made a dent in his inventory. He regularly fields phone calls from church groups that have more donations than they can manage, or individuals asking for clean-outs.

The job requires a thorough knowledge of garbage routes, and of garbage.

“I’m a trashologist,” Hagins said. “The average person looks at a vacuum cleaner that’s broken, and they see a broken vacuum cleaner. I see the motor and the copper wire.”

There’s clean trash and there’s dirty trash; knowing the difference has kept Hagins mercifully bedbug free. He’s also learned to look for for-sale signs and clusters of contractor bags that indicate someone has moved. He’ll frisk them like they’re covered in braille and shake them like they’re Christmas presents.

The work has other hazards. Residents sometimes yell at him. One man pulled a gun. Police have stopped him, asking questions, demanding ID.

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
Ogbonna Hagins, a/k/a Philly Green Man, finds space for a flatscreen TV in his van.

He’s not fazed. By Hagins’ estimation, there’s $1,000 in value on every 15 blocks’ worth of garbage. His problem is space: He lost the building he was using and hasn’t identified a new warehouse. So, for now, his inventory is limited.

Hagins would like to grow his business, hire help or even create a recyclers union to make swapping finds simpler. He pays other scrappers 50 cents for each pair of shoes. Other scrappers have their own specialties. One man he knows pays $2 to $4 a bag for plastic bottles, then takes them to New York in bulk to turn profit off the refunds, a modest scam.

This, he figures, could be the perfect employment opportunity for people getting back on their feet after incarceration.

He stops to refuel the minivan and meets a young man who’s pumping gas for money. He’s dropped out of high school, he says, because he stained his uniform shirt and can’t afford a new one. Hagins tears up listening to the kid’s story, and offers to find him work. He gives the teen his number, but predicts he’ll never call. They rarely do.

Then, Hagins gets back in the van, eager to get ahead of the garbage trucks, excited to uncover what’s next.

It’s an amazing amount of waste.”

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