A Self-Professed “Trash Walker” Finds Treasures Among New York City’s Refuse
by Trisha Leigh
One thing I really love about the internet, and about life in general, is how many different experiences are out there that you may never have known about, or even thought to ask about, before.
For instance, there’s such a thing as a “trash walker,” and it’s actually quite a bit more romantic than you might think.
Former investment banker Anna Sacks woke up one day and realized that, even though she was making good money, she wasn’t living a life that felt important and fulfilling.
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She quit her job, packed up her New York City apartment, and spent three months in Connecticut practicing Adamah, a Jewish farming program that focuses on sustainable farming/living.
Afterward, she says she returned to New York with new skills and a new outlook on life.
“One of the things that really stuck with me from Adamah, which means ‘Earth’ in Hebrew, was how little waste they produce and how they handled the waste they did have, primarily through composting. And I just thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing that here?’ I’d walk around my neighborhood and was shocked at how many bags of waste were piled up. I began to wonder, ‘What is actually in all those bags and recycling bins on the curb?”
Those questions would lead her to find her calling in composting, food rescue, and trash walking – and would eventually end with her being one of the most influential climate change activists on social media in 2022.
“Trash walking” consists of Sacks walking around her neighborhood and picking through her neighbor’s trash looking for reusable items. She also rummages through corporate dumpsters, and on her TikTok, you can watch her dig out things like designer clothing and accessories, dinnerware, and even food.
Her goal with sharing the fruits of her walk is to highlight the problem of consumerism.
“The root issue is overproduction, which leads to overconsumption, which leads to an immense amount of waste.”
What shocked her perhaps more than how much excess our society produces, though, is how much perfectly good stuff is being tossed into the garbage.
“I don’t usually gasp or get shocked, but this is shocking,” she said in a video in which she found 16 unopened boxes of tissues and two intact rolls of toilet paper behind a retail store.
When digging through dumpsters behind retail stores she often finds whole bags of candy, boxes of feminine care products, decorations, and the like.
Schools in particular have become known for wasting still-edible food.
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“I think the New York public school system can do a better job managing their inventory, so this (hundreds of bags of mini carrots) doesn’t end up being wasted, as it currently is.”
Sacks blames the current tax system for at least some of this waste, because companies that destroy merchandise can claim the cost as a loss – a benefit that’s much higher that the one they would get should they donate the goods instead.
“Employees are not allowed to take this home. That would be considered theft, and they’d be fired for doing so. And the same thing for donating. Even if an employee wanted to donate it, they could be fired for theft for donating.”
She’s trying to press for change by encouraging politicians from both parties to pass “Donate, Don’t Dump” legislation to put a stop to that kind of thing.
“Corporations need to do better about reducing their waste, but voters also need to speak up and get these policies changed.”
One of her most viral videos was of a bunch of brand-new Coach handbags that had been purposely slashed before being put out with the trash in order to cal the unsold inventory “damaged” and take advantage of that tax benefit.
Coach, for their part, boasts a “sustainability commitment” on their website and states they encourage others to fix damaged bags.
Her video caused immediate change when a week later Coach announced they were changing their policy to no longer destroy in-store returns.
Sacks’ efforts have also affected real change at other large companies, like CVS and Starbucks, too.
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Here are some of the coolest things she’s found going through New York City’s trash:
- An antique Russel Wright Saturn punch bowl set. It is now part of the permanent collection at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
- A ball of expensive Tiffany necklaces. She and a friend spent hours untangling them.
- A beautiful urn full of ashes from a pet cat. “It’s a good thing I read the plaque on the bottom, or I might have opened it,” she says.
- A green velvet opera jacket. She kept it and still wears it.
- A framed page of an actual medieval book. It now hangs in her home.
- A set of like-new rattan chairs and a coffee table. They’re in her living room.
- A collection of toddler board books. She gifted them to her niece.
- The finest chocolates. She saves some to eat and gives others away.
- A set of vintage china.
- Fresh flowers. “Stores throw these out a lot,” she says. “I almost always have fresh flowers in my home.”
- New wool socks.
- Holiday decorations and lights.
- Planters with plants still in them. She says she does her best to keep the plants thriving.
She’s kept so many cool things that she’s full up, and has to find ways to offload her great finds to others.
Friends, family, and individuals in need have all been recipients, and she’s also donated to shelters or free stores.
Sacks says she avoids donating to thrift stores because they throw out tons of good donations.
Here are some of her best suggestions if you want to take a look at how you can waste less:
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- Compost your food scraps.
- Learn how to grow food sustainably at home.
- Repair items instead of buying new ones immediately.
- Store and reuse seasonal items.
- Purchase secondhand goods.
- Participate in swap or free groups in your area.
- Donate nice but unwanted items.
- Recycle. Just make sure you know how to recycle the right way. Too many people throw anything and everything into the recycle bin, which makes their whole bag unusable.
- Do your own trash walks!
Try not to feel badly if you have a long way to go. Sacks reminds us all that when we know better, we do better.
“Once you become conscious of the way you consume, you can see ways you improve.”