Meet the Jewish activist digging through the trash for climate justice


This article first appeared on Alma.

A few years ago, Anna Sacks was an utterly different person. Her existence revolved around the monotonous slender buildings, high-rise cubicles and exceedingly demanding domains of Manhattan’s corporate world. The young New Yorker’s workday routines soon became onerous and quite prosaic, to the point of tedium. She needed a radical switch away from the antagonistic competitive culture that prevented her from fulfilling her personal aspirations.

Waiting for her — far from the concrete jungle’s chaotic littered streets — were the idyllic vistas of rural Connecticut. After quitting her job in investment banking, she would find spiritual and emotional refuge there within The Adamah Fellowship, a three-month residential program for adults that blends organic farm-to-table living with sustainable agricultural practices through the teachings and lens of Judaism.

She was lured quickly by the scenery’s natural charm, the metaphysical dynamics of communal living, and the substance and intention behind the work carried out on the farm. The transformative Jewish experience would prove to be a pivotal point for the 30-year-old — and would help steer her life’s purpose toward becoming the individual she is today: an environmental activist.

Upon returning to the Upper West Side, a crude reality awaited Anna: an excessive amount of usable items tossed out daily in the trash. Such disheartening sights would prompt her to start rummaging through some of the bags piled up along her neighborhood’s sidewalks.

Usually armed with reusable bags and a pair of puncture-proof gardening gloves, Anna tries to salvage every item she can get her hands on. At home she sorts her finds, deciding what stays with her, what she gives to friends and family, and what she donates to charitable organizations. She simultaneously documents the process on TikTok and later on Instagram, coining the experience as “Trashwalks” and her figure as “The Trash Walker.”

(Patricia Lopez Ramos)

Since her time with Adamah, Anna has gone from having no experience in sustainability to becoming an expert on the matter. She recently waged a petition on titled “Tell CVS to Donate, Don’t Dump,” to implore and pressure the pharmacy chain to minimize waste and donate unused goods to local charitable organizations. It had more than 444,000 signees as of this week.

I sat down recently with Anna, virtually, to talk about her activism, the relationship between Judaism and nature, and the untenable waste practices of some of the biggest corporations in America.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

How many times a week do you do your trashwalks? And could you walk me through one of your routines?

I tend to go as frequently as I can. Sometimes I do a short one, and I do a longer one if I have more time. It is typically two or three times per week. Once I have the stuff I need, I document and sort everything out. I follow the residential recycling schedule. In New York City, different blocks put up their recycling on different days, so that’s what I do. I also go to corporations that are along that route. I have this campaign asking CVS “Donate, Don’t Dump,” so if I’m meeting up with my friends and if there’s a CVS along the way, I will go there to see what they’re doing.

When was the first time you noticed the disposal practices of CVS? And when did you start checking other companies as well?

It’s not just CVS. It’s a very common practice in the U.S., and unfortunately in other parts of the world, too. It’s a way for corporations to manage their unwanted merchandise.

Specifically, this past week at CVS, I found around 10 garbage bags filled with candy, cereal and pretzels. The majority of it wasn’t past best-by-date. The cereals had a best-by-date in November. It was a very long shelf-life. Whenever there is a holiday, they typically have the merchandise on sale for a period, then they need to make room for the other stuff, so they typically toss it. That’s consistent. Every store sells seasonal merchandise, whether it’s TJ Maxx or Walgreens, Party City, even larger chains like Target and Walmart. They all do this. Some are just less accessible. Walmart usually has a compactor, so no one can see what they’re throwing out. It’s hidden, but it’s happening.

Besides joining your CVS campaign, how can citizens prevent companies from intentionally disposing of so many usable items?

I think it would be great if everyone talks to the store manager. Suppose you go to CVS, Michaels or Barnes & Noble. In that case, there are so many places, talk to their manager and ask them what they do with their excess merchandise and if it’s possible to set up donation partnerships, especially if you know a place that would accept those items.

I’ve heard that corporations don’t donate food because they’re afraid of being sued. Yet you’ve said multiple times that they are protected from legal liability under the federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. Why aren’t companies taking advantage of this existing legal framework?

Sometimes it’s a misconception that is hopefully easily corrected. I’ve heard from a lot of employees that managers tell them [they can’t donate food] because of lawsuits. What I have experienced is that hierarchy gets in the way: the fact that the store-level employees have no control over it; neither the store manager nor the regional manager shows up; there’s no room within the organization for them to be donating, even if they wanted to.

One really easy change that CVS could do is allow employees to take home this excess merchandise and let it be a perk. The majority of CVS employees make minimum wage and don’t have benefits. That could be a way and an opportunity in which they compensate. Companies are just focused on all the negative aspects that could happen, which is, from their perspective, employees abusing the system, rather than all the positive aspects that can happen from it.

A snapshot of some of the supplies that Anna Sacks has saved. (Courtesy of Sacks)

In an article you wrote for Lilith, you said that before going to Adamah, you weren’t so conscious about ecology or the environment. What prompted you to leave your job for the fellowship, and what life lessons did you gain from this experience?

The corporate world, in general, has an unfair system in which you get compensated really well, but it’s a very hard price to pay personally. I’m grateful for my time in investment banking, and I appreciate all the work that I did. There’s nothing negative about that. But in the entire system, the expectations are to be on call 24/7. There’s a lot of burnout. I reached that point where I was working late nights and couldn’t see my friends or go to events. I was ready to leave.

So one day, I went with one of my friends to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. There I heard about Adamah and realized it was something I’ve been looking for, something different from what I’ve been doing, and that fills these voids. So I made the jump. I’m grateful that I could do it, and I wish that more people had the flexibility to figure out what their passion is and pursue it.

Talking about Adamah, I’d love to ask you: What does your Jewish identity mean to you? Does it shape the work that you do?

I care a lot about being Jewish and Judaism, especially as a culture, history and traditions. I also appreciate Judaism, trying to make this world a better place and how it’s grounded in this world. I also care a lot about anti-Semitism in the U.S. and globally. I try to speak out about that, too, because it’s very upsetting.

Community is also a big part of it. Making Shabbat dinners. Singing. Sharing a culture. However, I would like to see some change in Judaism. One is the intersection of climate change and animals. I don’t think that factory-farmed meat should be kosher. It’s evident that according to the Bible and the historical precedent about how we treat animals, factory farms would mean that the animal is no longer kosher. Another aspect would be, for example, the use of single disposables. Thinking about when you have a big Shabbat dinner, and you don’t want to do dishes … I think those are ways in which Judaism can be more in line with nature, and from what I see, it’s a very clear stance on climate change.

One of the most significant aspects of Judaism is its intrinsic relationship with nature and the environment. How can people apply what Judaism teaches us about sustainability and the relationship between human needs against nature’s autonomous rights in their daily lives?

I think that’s a little bit hard for me to say because it’s so personal. At Adamah, it was focusing on the relationship between nature and Judaism. We would do Avodat Lev in the morning for prayer. Sometimes it could be going for a walk in nature, sitting and listening to the sounds, thinking and being grateful. That’s a spiritual practice. I went to Jewish day school and we had tefillah in the morning, [but] it was all indoors. I like the idea of incorporating nature as a spiritual practice.

How can corporations implement Jewish values into their waste management policies and practices?

For meat, there’s an alternative called Grow and Behold in the U.S. All their meat is kosher. They make sure animals are treated well. They are given enough land to run on. And there’s another one called KOL in D.C. There are companies that are doing this. The meat is more expensive, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Meat should be expensive, so people enjoy it less frequently. It shouldn’t be this thing that we have multiple times a day, and for most of human history it never was that way.

Nowadays, even though there are so many ways to recycle, compost and so many resources available to live a sustainable life, many people still find it challenging to get out of the vortex of the powerful consumerist culture we live in. What are your thoughts on this reflection?

The thing is, I like consumption. I’m not a minimalist, I’m a maximalist. I do like shopping. I consider it to be a hobby. How I find an outlet, though, is in thrifting, and I’ve always loved thrifting. I shop on eBay, Etsy and the Facebook marketplace. And then I go through the waste. I would say for people that are into consumption, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that necessarily. I would recommend looking secondhand; it’s often cheaper. That’s another thing. You can get something cool, unique and cheaper than it would be if you’re buying it new. The mentality, in general, is focused on obtaining things, and it’s tricky to move away from that mentality, and I don’t think I have. To me, thrifting is very meditative and a way to unwind.

With the current rise of anti-Semitism, how do you navigate sharing your Jewish identity online?

I think it’s very important for Jewish people to speak out and to identify themselves as Jewish. Speaking out against anti-Semitism is important because it operates in a very different way than other forms of hatred and prejudice. One of the tropes is that Jews are all-powerful, and we’re not used to thinking of being powerful as a form of oppression. We used to think of powerlessness as a form of oppression. It’s one of the key pillars of white supremacy. What unites these movements across the world is the belief that Jews are running the world and are in power. It’s very hard to overstate how central anti-Semitism is to white supremacy. Making that connection, it’s important. Maybe a person doesn’t care about anti-Semitism but cares about white supremacy, and so perhaps then they’ll speak out against it. It’s also important to explain it in a way in which it fits into the other systems.

Besides your deep sense of commitment, what else would you say most motivates you to do what you do?

The idea of changing things and making things better. We created this system so that we can create a better system. To me, this is low-hanging fruit, very common sense. It’s bipartisan. And something that’s not controversial. Suppose anyone watches the videos and sees the waste. It’s a human reaction to be like, “this is upsetting,” “this is wrong.” That’s motivating to do something that can do good and help people and be better for the environment. It’s a positive thing to change.

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