Anna Sacks has an entire TikTok account dedicated to being a “trash walker.” She walks around Manhattan, looking for items that were left out on the curb, and salvages them: Her finds have gone viral for exposing obscene amounts of waste, including bags and bags of unopened chocolates outside of a major pharmacy chain, and barely used school supplies in outside of schools.
Sacks started posting videos of herself on the platform in 2020. In the two years since, she’s garnered more than 405,000 followers and 7.7 million likes on her account. Several of her videos have landed on the TikTok “For You” page.
Some videos highlight how personal hygiene products, like toilet paper, are just thrown away. In a recent video, Sacks explains that some businesses, like hotels, swap out a semi-used roll of toilet paper and place a fresh one. They throw out the rest of the paper instead of reusing it, or allowing customers to use up the entire supply first. “This is common practice in hotels and fancy office buildings,” Sacks said in her video. “They may as well set the toilet paper and paper towels aside so that nonprofits and shelters could use them.”
I spoke with Anna about her ever growing TikTok presence, and the logistics of being a trash walker in NYC. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Angely Mercado, Earther: Is it legal to go out and “trash-walk” in NYC?
Anna: It’s a gray area, honestly. Technically once it’s on the curb, I think the Department of Sanitation would argue that it’s their material. So it’s a gray area of who owns the stuff on the curb. So does it belong to the public, if a person has discarded it, or the sanitation hauler that has not picked it up yet? I think the ambiguity is a good thing.
Earther: Why did you start TikTok to share your sustainability journey?
Anna: I created a TikTok during the [beginning of the] pandemic. I think that the trash is very visual. I started gaining a lot more traction there. And then I had the article in The Guardian last summer, and that really grew my account.
Earther: Out of other sustainability topics, who did you choose focusing on all the stuff that’s thrown out?
Anna: I had done Adamah, which is Jewish farming fellowship in Connecticut. And I came back to New York City, and I was trying to do something related to compost. I applied to some things, and I was rejected. I was having difficulty entering the world of sustainability. Soon after, I met with my friend’s mom for lunch and showed her my resume. She was like, “to be honest, I wouldn’t hire you. You’re competing against people who have a Master’s in sustainability.” I was at an investment bank before I went to the farm. So doing this [social media]… It was, in part, a way to get credibility without needing to go back to school to get a master’s, which I really wanted to avoid.
Earther: When did the trash walking on TikTok start?
Anna: I started TikTok during the pandemic with my buy nothing group. I met these people and thought, “Ok, this is kind of a low stakes way to introduce other people to it.”And it was awesome. We found like this treasure trove of vintage items in the trash, and we all really got amazing things.
Earther: Can you tell me how you prep for an evening of “trash-walking”? What do you bring?
Anna: I always carry a reusable bag, in my main bag. I also carry a puncture proof glove and hand sanitizer. And if I’m going on a trash walk, I bring my cart.
In the very beginning, I would walk around and carry things. Then I quickly realized that this was very limiting. A cart just makes it so much easier. I also put a bungee cord on my cart, so if I need to I can secure things on top of it. I personally use my iPhone as a flashlight. But you could also bring a separate flashlight.
Earther: What’s it like going out in a group?
Anna: I met a lot of people through my buy nothing group who are very interested in trash walking. Now we’re good friends and we go out pretty frequently together. We go in small groups. I don’t want to attract too much attention. I want to be a little bit discreet.
What’s nice is that we share similar values about waste. Whenever I go out, I always find more than I can take. And when we go as a group, there are a lot of hands, and a lot of people willing to take different things for themselves. People will also take stuff to free stores, or to post on buy nothing groups. So it doesn’t feel like I’m leaving stuff behind.
Earther: Do you have a favorite trash haul?
Anna: One night that sticks out is [when] a couple of my friends went to a place that someone posted online, saying there was a bunch of stuff. It was all these really cool handmade ceramics that were beautiful. I really like the art [that I find]. My favorites are always vintage things. Vintage clothing, vintage dishes, and glassware. And then handmade things, like handmade sculptures. I think those are really special.
Earther: How does identity come up for you when going out “trash walking?”
Anna: I can do this for fun, which is a privilege. That is related to my class identity. And I think that people who do this out of necessity… that might be a different experience than what I have. I don’t have to do this. But there are people who go through the trash out of necessity.