Around Christmas, Stuart Atkins sees a lot of romances break up.

Well, he doesn't actually see the hurt feelings and broken hearts, just the remnants of failed love: discarded diamond rings, men's clothing tossed on the curb and comfortable old recliners out on the lawn.

Atkins is in the garbage business, and every year at this time -- amid the foil wrappings, boxes and discarded Christmas trees -- he finds what's left of a happy home.

"I think a lot of marriages must go to hell this time of year, quite frankly," said Atkins, operations manager for Rainbow Waste Disposal Co. in Herndon. "You pull up to a house and there's tons and tons of men's clothing, underwear to topcoats. And maybe his recliner will be out there also. I think relationships go to heck quicker than anything else this time of year.

"You come up to a guy's house and notice the pickup truck isn't there anymore, and there's the old clothes, the recliner out there, the fishing pole.

"We've found . . . men's diamond rings. Women's engagement rings are a hot item too."

To Washington area trash collectors, sifting through holiday trash not only reveals what goes on behind the colorful lights and wreath-draped doors, but it can be as lucrative as a gift from Santa.

These workers, although lamenting the excesses of today's throwaway society and the physical burdens it places on them, often find salvageable appliances and other items that have been tossed out when Christmas presents have provided replacements.

"We find everything from A to Z," said John Hasle, owner of Reston Trash Service. "All too often, we find gifts that are not appreciated. They're thrown out in the same packages.

"We find too much waste in the waste stream. It's a little bit more exaggerated at Christmas than other times of the year."

Sometimes people make mistakes and throw out the gift, instead of the trash, said John Nowak, general manager of Waste Management of Northern Virginia. "I think a lot of things people throw away are nice," Nowak said. "People use them a couple of times and they toss them."

After the holidays, Richard Edwards, a worker at Hunt Trash Service Inc. in Alexandria, said he finds a lot of small televisions, old stereos, cookware, "things like that that they get better ones for Christmas. Old toys, bicycles."

"On our truck, we had a couple 13-inch TVs and a couple stereos that were thrown away," Edwards said. "Most of the time, I keep them and try to fix them and try to give them away to people who need them. That's like a hobby for me."

Kenneth Dove is lucky to have a premier route. He picks up trash in wealthy Potomac, where "there's tons of stuff."

He said most of the treasures are found after New Year's Day, "when people get settled down a little bit." Dove, owner of Dove Brothers Refuse in Bethesda, said he finds old weightlifting equipment, exercise machines, color televisions, clocks, radios and a lot of telephones.

"A lot of people have dinners" for large groups around the holidays and throw away a great deal of food, Dove said. "It just makes so much more trash." Atkins said he even finds unopened canned food. "I don't understand the mentality of that," he said.

Atkins said his workers can use the televisions and appliances if the case and glass are not broken.

"Most of my men have two VCRs" that have been taken from the trash and repaired, Atkins said.

He said some repair shops offer free estimates and can fix most VCRs for about $20, about $100 less than the cheapest new video recorder on the market.

Most of the garbage collectors complained that the bounty they find reflects a society that is wasteful, and said they wish people would donate more of the items to charity. But that's where the grumbling ends.

"For a garbage man, nothing costs us anything," Atkins said. "We pick up things out of the trash. It's what we call shopping."