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.
Still other finds travel much farther, to sustain families in places like Haiti and Sierra Leone.
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.”
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.
By opting out of consumer culture, he said, “I capitalize on the consumerism in America, and the waste.”
The work has other hazards. Residents sometimes yell at him. One man pulled a gun. Police have stopped him, asking questions, demanding ID.
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.