Anna Sacks, also known as “The Trash Walker,” is an environmentalist and social media influencer working to pass waste legislation in New York City and raise awareness through social media (@thetrashwalker). She is known for going on daily “trash walks” throughout NYC to call attention to the city’s waste problem and rescue usable items that have been discarded.
Sacks is the Legislative Chair for the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board and co-founder of NYC’s #SaveOurCompost coalition (@saveourcompost on social media). She previously worked at the waste consulting firm Think Zero LLC, on a regenerative farm, and at an investment bank. She earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies from Columbia University.
Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking some time to share your thoughts and experiences! Your degree is in East Asian studies and you previously worked as an investment banker, but you quit your banking job to complete a three-month regenerative farming program at The Adamah Farm. What prompted that change?
Anna Sacks: There were a number of structural things that allowed me to make that change. One was not having student debt and therefore having more financial freedom and time to figure out what I wanted to do. Each time, I was following my interests and trying to find something that was inherently meaningful to me.
FPC: What did you learn or experience during your time with Adamah that inspired you to shift your career focus to waste issues and advocacy?
AS: One thing was seeing composting very up close and personal and realizing that there was an alternative to putting our food scraps in the trash, where it would then go to landfills or incinerators, and that those scraps could actually be used to grow more food and regenerate our soil. I thought that made a lot of sense and was – and is – a beautiful cycle. Everyone, everywhere, should be composting.
Another thing I learned that started making me think about overall consumption was watching The Story of Stuff. It made me realize that our current system – take-make-waste with an assumption of infinite growth on a finite planet – is inherently not sustainable.
FPC: What do you think is the primary reason for NYC’s waste problem? If you were a policymaker, what is the first piece of legislation you would pass to start to fix this problem? Are there existing policies, either in NYC or elsewhere, that have been particularly helpful in reducing overall waste?
AS: When people move, there is a lot of waste generated, and we have a pretty large transient population in NYC. I don’t think New Yorkers are more wasteful than other places in the US on a per capita basis. I think it’s more visible here because we’re a denser city and the waste is piled up on the street so it looks like there’s more.
Legislatively, there are a lot of things. I want to quickly spotlight NYC City Council Bill Intro 978 – it’s a Donate, Don’t Dump bill, which would be the first in the nation and would require chain stores to donate instead of tossing hygiene items like shampoo and conditioner, soap, menstrual pads, and other essential items. I’m really happy to have worked on that a bit, because that is something I do encounter a lot at places like Duane Reade and CVS.
For residential waste, I would like to see some of our waste pick-up schedules shift. For example, right now, where I live, we have trash pick-up three days a week, recycling pick-up once a week, and organics pick-up once a week. If you look at the actual waste composition study from the Department of Sanitation, one-third of our waste is organic matter, which can be composted, one-third is recyclable, and one-third is “other.” And within that “other” category, six percent of our overall waste is textiles, so even less than a third is trash. I think we should look at right-sizing our collection days so that we have more frequent recycling and organics pick-ups and less frequent trash pick-ups. By doing that, people would have to pay more attention to separating their food scraps and recyclables in order to reduce the trash that needs to be picked up.
I would also like to see the city do a lot more with reusables (things like furniture, for example). When you have usable items to donate or give away, you’re kind of on your own, and that can be overwhelming. I would like the city to do more collections of reusable items and develop more reuse infrastructure.
The bottle bill is a good example of diverting a really valuable material from the waste stream to the recycling stream. You assign a value to the bottle itself – the consumer has to make the deposit when they purchase a bottled beverage – and then they can redeem that deposit by recycling the empty bottles at a reverse vending machine or grocery store. When you have a system like that, you go from seeing very minimal recycling to something like 80 percent recycling. I would like to see a bottle bill nationwide, since aluminum and even plastic are really valuable materials. That should technically also prevent virgin resource extraction, which is a key reason to recycle.
Extended producer responsibility is also a really good tool. The producer has to pay for the end-of-life of whatever they are producing. As an example, electronics stores in New York State are required by law to take back used electronics for proper disposal. Similarly, leftover paint can be returned to the store where it was purchased. Extended producer responsibility is really good for electronics and hazardous waste, for which there isn’t a lot of municipal infrastructure and it costs the municipality millions of dollars per year to properly dispose of it.
One thing we need to see more of is enforcement. You have something go into law, but then what happens next? If it is not enforced, it’s meaningless, or maybe even worse than meaningless because it sets a precedent that you can ignore the law and it’s fine. I’d like to see a lot more enforcement for commercial organics separation and recycling. Since 2016 in NYC, large businesses have been required to separate their organics for beneficial use, either anaerobic digestion or composting, but very few are doing so. I see a lot of grocery stores with no separation whatsoever of food scraps, and they’ve been required to do so for at least 5 years. The plastic bag ban was in a similar situation – it took a lot of citizen activism to get the bill passed, but corporations continued to hand out plastic bags, and then it took even more citizen activism to get it enforced. Whenever we pass these laws, we need to make sure there’s also enforcement, especially when corporations have to comply.
FPC: Many of your social media posts and videos have exposed a great deal of food, still in packaging and not expired, that has been discarded by various retailers. What has been the most shocking example of food waste you have seen? What do you do with the food that you find?
AS: The situation that got the most attention recently was Starbucks. There was a store closing and there were trash bags full of coffee beans, frozen egg bites, brownies, biscotti, Kind bars, unused coffee cups, napkins, everything. The volume there was pretty shocking. Another one was after Thanksgiving last year, there were at least five trash bags full of pies – apple, pumpkin, pecan – outside a grocery store. Then, after Halloween and Valentine’s Day, there’s the waste of the candy that stores haven’t sold. I often come across trash bags just filled with M&Ms or gourmet chocolates. Plus, most bakeries and bagel shops overproduce every day. If you go to those places in NYC at the end of the day, you’ll find trash bags filled with bread products. It’s shocking, but it’s also a daily occurrence, so it becomes less shocking.
When I find shelf-stable, sealed food that I don’t want, I might take it to a community cupboard. But, I know that people in the food-rescue space have very strong opinions about dumpster-diving and giving food from the trash to other people, so I typically keep it for myself or give it to my friends and my family.
FPC: There are more than one million New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity. Why do you think more corporations are not donating their food waste to help those in need? What could be done to make it easier to donate leftover food?
AS: I think some of it has to do with the type of food – a lot of what I see is bread, from bagel shops, bakeries, and grocery stores. There is a limit to the amount of bread a shelter can accept. It goes stale quickly, it’s not a frozen food (although you can freeze it), and it’s not nutritionally dense. It really points to a need for source reduction. We have an overproduction problem in the US, where 40 percent of food is wasted, and even if we solved food insecurity, we’d still have food waste because we have too much to begin with. Bread and candy are good starting points for talking about source reduction.
Also, there is a common misconception that you’re going to get sued for donating leftover food, which I still encounter online. People think you can’t donate food, even though you’re protected under the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996. Another barrier may be not knowing the food rescue organizations that can take leftover food, like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, ReThink Food, and City Harvest. There may be barriers to finding someone to accept the food and setting up a schedule, but once you put that in place, it should be straightforward and part of regular day-to-day business.
Additionally, I spoke to CVS years ago about donating their leftover food, and there were major hierarchy issues regarding a need for special permission to donate outside of their existing partnership with Feeding America. So those types of hierarchy issues could also be a barrier to donating food.
I would also like to see more creativity, empowering employees to figure out solutions. If an employee is part of a church, or they pass a community fridge on their way home, allow them to take the excess food with them rather than considering it theft. Employees can look at the infrastructure in their local communities and see if there is a shelter, church, community fridge, or other places that would accept the food, and try to establish a direct relationship with them. I think there are more local solutions that are easier to navigate than working with corporate management and only donating to large non-profits.
FPC: About 39 percent of food waste in America – 42 billion pounds – comes from the home. Beyond legislation, what can we do to curb food waste at home? How could middle and high school curricula and/or classes like home economics teach young people to minimize food waste at home?
AS: I would say try to pay attention and notice patterns. I noticed that when I bought fresh kale or spinach, it would go bad before I could eat it and I ended up wasting it, so now I prioritize buying frozen to avoid producing food waste. I also think we get too obsessed about making sure we don’t use plastic, but we need to focus on reducing food waste regardless of the packaging. If it’s pre-cut and packaged in plastic, but that means you’ll actually eat it and you won’t waste the food, then buy it packaged in plastic. The majority of emissions and climate harm come from the production of the food itself, not from the packaging.
In general, I think cooking is a skill that everyone should be taught. And other skills like mending and repair should also be taught in school. I think it’s a mistake to have a lot of that curriculum taken out of schools. Home ec classes could teach people about what to do with leftovers, like how to use up the “bits”: saving food scraps to make stock, combining smaller bits of vegetables into a frittata, or using semi-stale leftover rice to make into fried rice with vegetables and eggs. I think there could be some creative ways to teach people how to make these “scrappy” recipes.
FPC: The other 61 percent of food waste comes from commercial entities. How can the public help influence corporate waste reduction?
AS: There seems to be a sense in the corporate world that people will throw a fit if the business runs out of food, so they overproduce. People need to understand that having multiple varieties of all things at all times inherently leads to waste. We need to be okay with knowing there may be fewer varieties of baked goods available at the end of the day and not throw a fit about it.
I think it is good when the public talks about these issues, like comments on my social media videos, and then the corporations have to respond, as Starbucks most recently did.
It’s tough because there’s not much that an individual can do to create laws. Yes, you could sign a petition, but a petition doesn’t translate into laws. There need to be very specific laws. I would like to see a tax on systemic overproduction targeting corporations like Dunkin’ Donuts that overproduce sweets and bread products. To me, the only way it is going to change is if it is no longer profitable to overproduce. People can definitely sign petitions and let politicians know this is something they care about, ask for money for environmental nonprofits, ask for money for pilot programs, but there need to be consequences for corporate overproduction, and it shouldn’t be the individual’s place to fix this problem.
FPC: Do you have any final thoughts to share?
AS: Just to reiterate, we really need to start addressing overproduction of food. That is the root issue. At a certain point, we’ll just be moving around food waste because there’s just inherently not enough mouths to feed for the amount of calories we produce in the US. Yes, it is important to recycle and compost, but source reduction is much more important than either of those things from a climate solutions perspective. And, it is relatively simple to implement, since it is about reducing food production rather than building more infrastructure. It won’t be a popular topic for legislation, but it’s one of the most important things we can do.
Grew up in: NYC
City or town you call home: NYC
Job title: Self-employed. I post on social media as @thetrashwalker, am the Legislative Chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, and am one of the founders of the #SaveOurCompost coalition.
Background and education: Columbia College
One word you would use to describe our food system: Wasteful
Food policy hero: Dana Gunders
Your breakfast this morning: Oatmeal I made with my 2-year-old niece
Favorite food: Tough to name one! Going with sungold tomatoes
Favorite last meal on Earth: Blue Hill at Stone Barns (on my bucket list)
Favorite food hangout: picnicking with friends under Central Park’s Cherry Blossom trees during peak bloom
Food policy social media must follow: @saveourcompost (focused on composting, which, to me, is part of food policy)