One Woman's Crusade to Reduce Waste in New York City
"Trash Walker" Anna Sacks finds treasure in her neighborhood's refuse and shares the discoveries with her 400,000 online followers. She is part of a growing trend of "zero wasters" who patrol the city's streets.
New York City has a trash problem. Mountains of bulging black plastic garbage bags are routinely stacked along sidewalks, awaiting collection. Not only do the piles of detritus and discarded items present an uninviting streetscape, they also impede pedestrian traffic and attract rats. To minimize the time garbage sits outside in the open, a recent change in the rules stipulates that refuse and recyclables cannot be placed on sidewalks until 8 p.m., fours hours later than before.
To some city residents, the bigger problem is that there is too much waste to begin with. A culture of abundance has created a costly and uninviting streetscape. Surplus food often ends up at the curb. Clothing and household items are discarded long before they are no longer useful. Unwilling to participate in the disposable economy, a loose-knit cadre of “buy nothings” and “zero wasters” are on a mission to rescue and repurpose what their neighbors discard.
Trash Walking the Streets of Manhattan
Anna Sacks has lived in New York’s Upper West Side neighborhood for every one of her 32 years. On a recent night in April, she steps off the curb at 79th Street and Columbus Avenue, across from the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks from her home. Outfitted in T-shirt and jeans, she keeps both hands on the handle of the upright shopping cart she pushes ahead. An elastic band keeps a tangle of fluffy red curls tied back and off her face.
It is a few minutes after eight and the shopkeepers and building supers are already filling the sidewalks with bags of trash and recyclables. The piles are often bookended with unwanted furniture, construction debris and household items in various states of repair. Anna is here with her cart not to shop, but to sift through other people’s trash, determined to find something that’s still useful. Or edible.
Her first stop tonight is in front of a residential building where she spots a vacuum cleaner, a folding scooter and an armchair beside a tower of cardboard boxes. After examining each item, she decides to leave them where they are. “I think I’ve gotten better at rejecting things,” she says.
Whether Anna finds something on her walk or not, every bag she examines is re-tied and put back where it was found. “It’s not my responsibility to clean up after someone else,” she says. “But I’m not going to contribute to the mess either.” Having unearthed a few things of interest, she snaps some pictures to share with her “buy nothing” group and then checks her phone to see what others have found. “This is on 71st Street,” she says, squinting at a recently posted photo of chairs. “We have a very active group!”
After an unproductive search of residential trash, Anna decides she might have better luck at a nearby gourmet grocery. Spotting the store’s collection of trash bags and bins she immediately sets to work, peering into the bags with a glove on one hand and her cellphone flashlight in the other.
Most of the store’s trash bags yield a wide variety of edibles, including several rotisserie chickens that are still warm. Given the abundance of salvageable food, Anna is compelled to alert her friend Constance who arrives within minutes on her bike. The two of them quickly amass an assortment of pies, ravioli, lobster bisque, muenster cheese and cupcakes. Anna surmises that a box of cookies has been tossed only because they are broken. Constance intends to give most of what she has collected to her church. The last bag to be checked contains sushi, which both women decide to pass up.
From Bags to Shared Containers
New York’s refuse wasn’t always put out in the open. In response to a strike by sanitation workers in 1968, the city distributed 100,000 plastic-lined paper bags to hospitals and another 200,000 bags for residents, donated by the plastic industry. That was the beginning of the end of the unloved noisy and dirty metal cans.
In a recently released report, the city sanitation department outlines plans for containerizing the 44 million pounds of trash left on the city’s curbs every day, eliminating trash from view and deterring rats. The report estimates that nearly 90 percent of residential streets could benefit from shared containers. But to do so, 150,000 parking spaces would need to go. On some blocks, that could mean up to 25 percent of curb space would be given over to the bins.
Costs to containerize the city could run to hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade, partly because a new fleet of specialized trucks will be needed to lift and empty the sealed, rodent-proof receptacles within the confines of narrow city streets. Collections will need to occur with greater frequency to keep bins from overflowing.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
Before she became the Trash Walker, Anna Sacks gave up a career in investment banking, choosing instead to spend seven months living and working at a Jewish farming fellowship in rural Connecticut. After that experience, waste management in Manhattan seemed far removed from the sustainable agricultural practices and farm-to-table living she had grown accustomed to. She has since made it her mission to change the way government and corporations deal with waste, beginning in her own New York neighborhood.
Besides her independent work as a waste expert and environmental activist, Anna serves as the legislative committee chair on the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, a community organization promoting zero waste.
“The administration is focusing on the aesthetics of trash and waste,” Anna says. “It's trying to get it out of sight and out of mind. And that's not a real solution. We're producing too much. We’re consuming too much. We need more city support for waste reduction and waste reuse."
Pounding the SidewalksAfter Anna has salvaged what she can from the gourmet market, her next stop is the Dakota, New York’s oldest luxury apartment building and home to many famous artists, actors and musicians since it was built in 1884.
On this night at least, the Dakota’s well-to-do residents have left little of interest on the sidewalk. After carefully examining an elephant planter and an unwrapped but unused bar of soap, Anna re-ties and re-stacks the bags. She determines that a Louis Vuitton handbag is a knockoff and puts it back where she found it. A light rain is falling at 10 o’clock, and there are still two hours of trash walking to do.