Anna Sacks spends several evenings a week rummaging through garbage on the streets of New York. Whatever the weather, by the end of each two-hour walk, her trusty wire shopping cart is usually filled.
Spying the young woman with long fiery red hair, passersby occasionally approach her and ask if she needs money or food. She kindly rejects their offers, telling them, “I’m good, thanks.”
Sacks doesn’t sort through refuse because she is homeless or hungry — rather, she is a “trash walker” determined to rescue usable items. Her goal: to make a statement about consumerist culture and ultimately help save the planet.
In recent months, Sacks has gained local and national medial attention for turning her trash walking into a campaign against CVS, the largest pharmacy chain in the United States, with nearly 10,000 locations throughout the country.
Sacks discovered that CVS stores were throwing out alarmingly large quantities of sealed, usable items, which prompted her to start a #DonateDon’tDump change.org petition to pressure the company to reduce waste and donate unwanted merchandise to local charitable organizations. To date, the petition has collected 70 percent of its targeted 500,000 signatures.
By going through trash bags left outside CVS stores in Manhattan, Sacks discovered that products such as diapers, makeup, toothpaste, and tampons are being sent to landfills or incinerators simply because their outer packaging is slightly damaged. Greeting cards and holiday-related items are thrown out because vendors want shelf space for different or newer merchandise. Shelf-stable food is being tossed because its best-by date is approaching.
“Legally, only baby formula needs to have a best-by date. Best-by dates on all other products are voluntarily put there by manufacturers and often only indicate product quality, not product safety,” Sacks wrote on her change.org page. “If anyone were to get sick from donated food, CVS would be protected from legal liability under the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. In addition, there have been no recorded lawsuits related to food donation,” she claimed.
Sacks’s several attempts to reach CVS president and CEO Larry Merlo about the matter were unsuccessful. A regional manager did respond, saying that CVS has a national partnership with Feeding America and Feed the Children, and that local partnerships for donating would be established. Sacks remains doubtful and has seen no measurable impact on the amount of usable waste generated by the CVS stores she has checked.
“I discovered that what I was seeing in Manhattan was also happening at CVS stores I went to in other cities. It’s not just a New York problem,” Sacks told The Times of Israel.
It’s also not just a CVS problem. The 28-year-old Sacks once discovered so much usable merchandise discarded by a Manhattan Duane Reade pharmacy location that was closing, that she needed to call an Uber XL to load up the incredibly large haul.
“They were tossing everything, including unexpired, unopened children’s medicine,” Sacks said.
Sacks reached out to the New York Post after she spotted brand new, still-packaged school supplies — books, notebooks, folders, colored pencils, markers glue sticks, paper — thrown out by a New York City public school. Ironically, the school was part of the city’s department of sanitation’s “Zero Waste School” initiative.
Sacks decided to devote her Instagram account exclusively to her trash walking, where she posts photos and descriptions of items she rescues. People can be in touch about merchandise they would like. Other items are used by Sacks herself, or by her friends and family. She gifts whatever is left to the public, putting the items outside, usually to be snatched up by neighbors and passersby within 24 hours.
Sacks grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side attending the Abraham Joshua Heschel School through 8th grade and then a private girls’ high school. She says she wasn’t originally so ecologically conscious.
“I used to automatically throw out yogurts the day after their printed expiry date, and I would drink from a paper coffee cup and toss it without a thought,” she said.
Things changed after Sacks, who has a bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages and cultures from Columbia University, spent half a year at Adamah: The Jewish Farming Fellowship in Falls Village, Connecticut. After immersing herself in organic farming and carefully managed waste practices such as composting, she returned to Manhattan in spring 2017 newly appalled at the sight of the garbage and recycling piled up on the sidewalks.
“You just can’t escape it. People don’t think about the garbage they are producing and where it goes. You just put out bags and then they are magically gone,” she said. “People are not as impacted financially by their waste practices as they are by not fixing a leaky faucet or leaving the lights on.”
Building on her limited experience dumpster diving for vintage clothes as a teenager, Sacks kicked her trash walking up a notch. She also found a job with Think Zero, a startup that consults on waste reduction and diversion.
She canvassed her Upper West Side neighborhood, noting the days of the week and times that various blocks and buildings put out their trash and recycling. She devised a schedule and route to follow that has her starting with residential buildings, where doormen and porters — who noted that she was neat and tied bags back up — were generally tolerant of her activities.
Sacks admitted that she had to buck up more courage to go through commercial waste, which she began doing in January 2019. “Sometimes I’ve been yelled at by businesses and I was afraid they would call the police,” she said.
Sacks said her activities likely fall into a legal grey area, and there’s a possibility of being cited or even arrested for loitering or disturbing the peace. She believes she gets away with her trash walking in large part because she, a well-kempt, young white woman, does not appear threatening.
“If I were not white it would be different, I suspect,” she said.
Sacks said that the education about the Holocaust she received at the Heschel School taught her that it is not always right to follow laws and popular opinion.
“Regardless of the legality or others’ opinions, what I am doing is right, and that is enough to motivate me. I am not ashamed or embarrassed to go through garbage in public,” she said.
Sacks, who has been to Israel many times, was impressed on a recent visit by bus stops she saw that had been converted to neighborhood lending libraries. She was less pleased by the lack of recycling, and was especially incensed to learn of the Israeli population’s insatiable appetite for disposable plasticware. “This is so against Judaism, which teaches us to take care of the earth and be respectful of it and of all creatures,” she said.
Encouraged by laws passed in France and Italy in 2016 requiring grocery stores and markets to donate all excess edible food, Sacks is hopeful that similar legislation will be passed in the US. Unfortunately, she doesn’t expect it to happen soon.
“We need government to step in and enact legislation to enforce the donation by corporations of unwanted usable items, but I think we are five to 10 years away from this because of the power corporations wield in this country,” Sacks said.
In the meantime, Sacks is focused on a more immediate concern: finding the time to sort through the piles of rescued merchandise she has stashed in various corners of the house she shares with other members of her family.
“They have been very understanding, but it hasn’t been easy for them to live with this stuff everywhere,” she said.