Words by Anna Sacks (as told to Daphne Chouliaraki Milner)
Photographs by Patricia Lopez Ramos
Anna Sacks—otherwise known as The Trash Walker on social media for strolling the streets and exposing the contents of residential and corporate dumpsters—on rethinking our relationship to waste.
Five years ago, I left my job at an investment bank to work on a regenerative farm as part of Adamah, a Jewish farming fellowship. I moved from one world to another. But by the time I returned to New York in 2017, composting had become my North Star.
At the time, I was unemployed and looking for work. All I really knew was that I wanted to work with composting—it could be anything as long as it was compost-related. The idea of trash walking came about in part because of my interest in regenerative waste management systems and in part because of the sheer amount of waste I was seeing on the curbs of New York City. Documenting my trash walks on social media became a tool that helped transition my career because, at first, I was having trouble finding work.
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Now, trash walking is how I spend most of my time. It’s driven by passion and curiosity. People who thrift or who go antiquing can probably relate to the treasure hunt aspect of it. There’s also so much to learn about waste and the many dimensions of what happens to our trash and why. The way we consume and discard goods can reveal so much about human health, environmental health, equity as well as how we’re prioritizing spending public money.
My trash walks often include a shopping cart, reusable bags, and reusable puncture-proof gloves. I align my calendar with the residential recycling schedule because the clear bags means it’s easier to see what’s in there. I only open up the black trash bags if it looks like residents are moving, meaning lots of books or dishes or even furniture are at the curb. I also sometimes stop by the trash bags of corporations along the way. In those cases, I’d go after the employees have gone home so I don’t get into awkward situations.
The way we consume and discard goods can reveal so much about human health, environmental health, equity as well as how we’re prioritizing spending public money.
One of my goals of the trash walks is to increase consciousness around waste issues. People need to be more aware of what we are consuming, what we are wasting, and how we are disposing of those items. I get messages from people telling me they’ve started going through corporate trash or being like, wow, I wasn’t aware of the scale of this issue. Sometimes, people who have worked in retail contact me about corporate waste and they’re like, yes, I had this experience [of throwing away piles of perfectly good items] happen to me.
A lot of our problems with overconsumption and, as a result, wastefulness stem from our rushed mentality; from this notion that we need to keep buying in order to remain relevant. In reality, we need to slow down the rate with which we produce and buy food, garments, and other goods.
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Take Black Friday, the sales holiday, as an example. It’s one of the most wasteful holidays of the year because of the amount of returns it generates. It also signals to consumers that they should buy for the sake of buying, even if they don’t necessarily need or even want the products they’re shopping for. That’s why so many items bought on Black Friday end up returned, and then sent to a landfill or incinerator. And it’s not just Black Friday. More broadly speaking, all holidays are wasteful because corporations tend to overproduce items for a particular day or theme but then don’t store the items that don’t sell for next year.
This disposable mentality is a systemic issue. In order to dismantle the structures that perpetuate and reinforce wasteful practices, we need to rethink what we value. We need to prioritize repair, reuse, and DIY as well as growing our own food and composting. We need to support local recycling initiatives that are useful, creative, and employ people.
Many of the items bought on Black Friday end up returned, and then sent to a landfill or incinerator.
And I mean local recycling initiatives—because our current recycling systems often have negative environmental consequences. Countries like the U.S. might decide to keep high-value plastics in the country and recycle them at local facilities. But much of the low-value plastics is shipped overseas, where it subsequently becomes litter or ends up in informal burning fields. The end result is hazardous for environmental, animal, and human wellbeing. In order for recycling to be an effective form of waste management we need to commit to doing it properly. There’s no reason why recycling shouldn’t stay in the country that produces and uses the products being thrown away. From an ethical standpoint, we should be processing our own waste here by following strict environmental standards.
Having said that, our wastefulness is not just environmentally damaging, it’s also a social justice issue.
For example: we don’t ever throw our trash away. The reality is that it goes to landfills or incinerators that are predominantly located in low-income countries. Even in New York, most—if not all—of Manhattan’s west side waste goes to the Covanta incinerator in Newark, New Jersey, an area that’s overburdened with infrastructure. There’s Newark Airport. There are wastewater treatments. There’s the incinerator. And then there are the people—mostly low-income BIPOC communities—who live and work in the surrounding neighbourhoods.
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And there are studies to show that incineration has detrimental effects on the health of people living nearby. For one, incinerators release carcinogens into the air. There’s also an increased likelihood that people who live near incinerators have asthma issues, while pregnant people are more likely to go into premature labour. If we were to reduce our overall waste by composting or recycling it responsibly, it would have a positive effect on public health.
There is a finite amount of natural resources on this planet—and we are currently extracting more per year than the Earth can ever regenerate. A large portion of that responsibility lies with corporations in extractive industries that only evaluate success by looking at their profitability. But profitability is not a sustainable or holistic metric for success. Instead, why can’t one of the factors that constitutes success be ethical and effective waste disposal? Or a reduction in the number of items like plastic that a company produces or consumes? It’s that unwillingness to evolve that is hindering our progress.