Dumpster diving to shame stores and fight waste

A woman dives head first into a dumpster outside a store in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on November 13, 2022. (Photo: NYTimes)
At the third convenience store of the night, Anna Sacks, 31, a dumpster diver who goes by @trashwalker on TikTok, hit the jackpot. Half a dozen clear trash bags sat along Second Avenue not far from her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.اضافة اعلان

Kneeling on the ground, Sacks untied the bags with a gloved hand and, using her iPhone flashlight, pulled out her haul: Tresemmé hair spray. Rimmel London Stay Glossy lip gloss. Two bags of Ghirardelli sea salt caramels. Six bags of Cretors popcorn mix. Wet mop refills. A Febreze air freshener. Toe warmers. A bottle of Motrin. All of it unopened, in the packaging and far from the expiration date.

The total value was perhaps $75, but money was not the point. Sacks, a former investment bank analyst, films her “trash walks”, as she calls them, and posts the videos to expose what she sees as the wastefulness of retailers who toss out returned, damaged, or otherwise unwanted items instead of repurposing them.

Fed up with the profligate practice, dumpster divers like Sacks have started posting videos of their hauls on TikTok in recent years as a way of shaming corporations and raising awareness of the wasteful behavior.

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A search of #dumpsterdiving on TikTok brings up tens of thousands of videos that collectively have billions of views. They include a video by Tiffany Butler, known as Dumpster Diving Mama, who found several handbags in the trash last year outside a Coach store in Dallas, all of them apparently slashed by employees. Sacks bought the bags and made a TikTok calling out the fashion brand. After the video went viral and sparked outrage (and was picked up by Diet Prada), Coach said it would stop “destroying in-store returns of damaged, defective, worn, and otherwise unsalable goods”, and instead try to reuse them.

Most of the dumpster activists target mass retailers like CVS, TJ Maxx, HomeGoods and Party City. Luxury fashion brands tend to keep a tighter control over their excess inventory and sometimes pay to have unsold items burned.

At a time when corporations tout their commitment to the environment, the sight of $500 handbags or even $6 Ghirardelli chocolates discarded in a dumpster can be a bad look.

Michael O’Heaney, executive director of The Story of Stuff Project, an environmental group in Berkeley, California, that raises awareness about waste through storytelling, called the eco-minded dumpster divers “metal detectors for flaws in the system”.

“What they’re finding in the trash are a fascinating lens into our waste economy,” said O’Heaney, whose organization recently filmed a trash walk with Sacks.

Activists like Sacks would prefer to see retailers donate items to charitable organizations and others in need. “We should be incentivizing corporations ideally to produce less in general,” Sacks said, but if that is not possible, they should “donate or sell it through, or store it for the next year, rather than destroy it”.

Many retailers say that they do, in fact, donate unsold goods, but some merchandise still needs to be sent to landfills.

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