The bus company recently adopted a new policy regarding lost objects. They were granted governmental approval to dispose of all non-valuable items two weeks after they were found on the bus. There is a specific list of what is considered valuable. Clothing like hats and talleisim are not classified as being valuable. I run a gemach that tries to return lost objects and would like to receive these objects instead of them being disposed of, in the hope of returning some of them. Will I be stuck forever with objects that I will never be able to return and they will just have to sit by me?
The first issue to clarify is the halachic status of the objects you may receive prior to their disposal. The Gemoro writes (Bovo Metsiyo 24A) that one who saves an object from a lion, bear…flood waters etc. may keep the object because the owners give up hope of ever having their object returned. The Gemoro (ibid 24B) rules that the same is true if one finds an object in a market place which is frequented by many gentiles because the loser has no hope of ever having his object returned. The Gemoro (ibid 22B) in fact derives this ruling from a pasuk.
There is a dispute among the major Rishonim exactly why one may keep these objects. Many Rishonim (Tosafos B.M. 22B, Ramban B.M. 27, Rosh B.M. 2, 6 and many others) maintain that the Torah classifies such objects as being hefkeir-ownerless. Thus, those objects are not bound by the laws which govern yi’ush-losing hope of having one’s object returned.
A second opinion (notably Rashi Bovo Kamo 66A who derives yi’ush from the pasuk which permits taking an object which was saved from a flood and, according to many, the Rambam Gezeilo Ve’aveido 11, 10 concurs and many others) explains that the reason one may keep these objects is because the Torah understands that under these circumstances all people lose hope of having their object returned to them.
According to both of the previously cited opinions, the Gemoro (Bava Matsiyo 21B) states that even if the owner is not aware that he lost the object, the finder may keep the object. This is in contrast to the usual ruling that yi’ush is only effective if the owner is aware that he lost the object before it is found. According to the first opinion this is very easily understood because the reason the finder may keep the object is because it is ownerless and therefore we are not bound by the rules which govern yi’ush, as we noted. The Nachalas Dovid (B.M. 22A) explains that even the second opinion can concur with this ruling because it is certain that when the owner eventually becomes aware of what happened to his object he will certainly lose all hope of recovering his object.
Based on the above, if we could classify the objects you will receive as falling into this category you will not have to hold onto these objects because they are really yours. Whatever you will return to the original owner is a favor to him, because these objects are really yours. They no longer belong to the one who lost them.
There is just one precaution to take if one uses this approach. You should not take the objects with the intention of returning them to the owners, but rather take them for yourself with the intent that if you can, you will try to return them. The reason for this precaution is based on a ruling of the Seridei Eish (1, 147) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (C.M. 2, 43). The Seridei Eish was asked concerning a person who saved many volumes from the library of the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin from the Nazis y.sh. The Seridei Eish was uncertain whether one can compare this situation to saving an object from a lion or a flood because the Nazis did not discard libraries. Rather they planned to transport them to Prague for their contemplated museum. However, the Seridei Eish ruled that in any case since the person who saved these seforim intended at the time to return them to the Hildesheimer Seminary he could not later change his mind and keep them for himself, since at the time he picked up these objects he meant to return them to the Seminary.
It would seem that there is a dispute if your situation falls into this category. If you show up at the time when the garbage trucks are present, then for sure this would fall into this category. However, you wish to come at certain intervals when you would receive these objects in lieu of them being disposed of by the bus company. As a result, there is a dispute whether your situation falls into this category. The Maharik (res. 3) rules that it suffices if most probably the object will be lost. However, the Mishna Lamelech and others maintain that this category only applies where a miracle is needed to save the object. According to this second opinion you could not rely on this leniency.
However, there is a second reason why you needn’t worry that you will become stuck with the objects which you will not succeed in finding their owner. The problem of being stuck with lost objects is in a situation where the finder finds the lost object before its owner became aware that it was lost, or even if he became aware, it was before he gave up hope of getting the object back. The reason why the finder becomes stuck with such an object is because at the time when it came into his possession he was obligated to return it, since its owner did not yet positively lose hope that it will be returned. After the finder has this obligation it does not go away until he returns the object.
If you wait until two weeks after the time the object was left on the bus, it is safe to assume that the majority of people will have given up hope of having their lost object returned. Since there will be yi’ush before you receive these objects, you will never assume responsibility for returning these objects. Again, you could keep all the objects for yourself. Whatever you do return is an act which is classified as acting lifnim meshuras hadin which is exemplary (See siman 259 seif 7.). Whatever you fail to return to the owner will not give you credit for returning a lost object, but you will be free to dispose of the object, just as you are free to dispose of any object of yours.
In conclusion: You will be doing a service in taking objects which the bus company would otherwise dispose of. Whenever you succeed in returning an object you will fulfill a mitzvah and whatever you are not successful with, you can dispose of in any manner you see fit.