NEW YORK – At the third Duane Reade convenience store of the night, Ms Anna Sacks, a dumpster diver who goes by @trashwalker on TikTok, hit the jackpot.
Half a dozen clear trash bags sat in Second Avenue, not far from the 31-year-old’s home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Kneeling on the ground, she untied the bags with a gloved hand and, using her iPhone flashlight, pulled out her haul: Tresemme hair spray, Rimmel London Stay Glossy lip gloss, two bags of Ghirardelli sea salt caramels, six bags of Cretors popcorn mix and more. All unopened and far from their expiration dates.
“My mum loves Diet Dr Pepper,” said Ms Sacks, digging out a six-pack with one can missing.
The total value was perhaps US$75 (S$103), but money was not the point. Ms 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 such as Ms Sacks have started posting videos of their haul on TikTok in recent years as a way of shaming corporations and raising awareness of the wasteful behaviour.
A search of #dumpsterdiving on TikTok brings up tens of thousands of videos that collectively have billions of views. They include a video by Ms Tiffany Butler, known as Dumpster Diving Mama, who in 2021 found several handbags in the trash outside a Coach store in Dallas, all of them apparently slashed by employees.
Ms 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 fashion watchdog group Diet Prada), Coach said it would stop “destroying in-store returns of damaged, defective, worn and otherwise unsaleable goods” and try to reuse them.
Most of the dumpster activists target mass retailers such as 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 burnt.
A video posted in November by Ms Liz Wilson, a mother of two in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who goes by Salty Stella, shows a dumpster at a nearby HomeGoods store filled with Halloween-themed mugs, plates, dog bowls and holiday decorations.
“This is absolutely horrendous,” the 37-year-old told her 1.2 million TikTok followers. “The only reason these things were thrown away is because Halloween is over.”
Ms Ella Rose, who goes by GlamourDDive, posted a video two months ago showing a dumpster outside a TJ Maxx store, filled with Zara dresses, grooming products by Fekkai and clothing from Victoria’s Secret.
At a time when corporations tout their commitment to the environment, the sight of US$500 handbags or even US$6 Ghirardelli chocolates discarded in a dumpster can be a bad look.
“Corporations don’t want people to see the overproduction, the wastefulness and the lack of donation,” said Ms Sacks, who has 400,000 followers and has received significant media coverage. “To change behaviour, it’s important to expose the wastefulness.”
Mr 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 Ms Sacks and other eco-minded dumpster divers “metal detectors for flaws in the system”.
“What they’re finding in the trash is a fascinating lens into our waste economy,” said Mr O’Heaney, whose organisation recently filmed a trash walk with Ms Sacks.
Some do more than just raise awareness. Ms Wilson puts together “Stella’s Kits” – which contain feminine hygiene supplies such as pads, tampons and flushable wipes assembled from dumpster dives – and distributes them at homeless shelters and other places where women experience period poverty.
While Ms Wilson also posts to YouTube and Instagram, she said her videos get the most reactions on TikTok. “People are just shocked and saddened,” she said. “Every day, I get the same reaction: ‘Why do stores do this?’”
Mr Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, said the practice is based on the cold calculation that “the simplest and most expedite way for a retailer to dispose of something, typically of low value, is to mark it out of its stock and dump it”.
Merchandise returned cannot always be resold because of regulations to protect consumers’ health – including food, some over-the-counter medicine and health and beauty aids, he said. Items damaged or worn, or are out of season such as holiday decorations, may have lost too much value, even for third-party buyers.
“As egregious as it is to see seemingly perfect product put into a landfill, it’s the shortest and least expensive path,” he added.
Activists such as Ms Wilson and Ms Sacks would prefer to see retailers donate items to charitable organisations and those in need. “We should be incentivising corporations ideally to produce less in general,” said Ms Sacks, but if that is not possible, they should “donate or store it for the next year, rather than destroy it”.
Many retailers said that they do donate unsold goods, but some merchandise still needs to be sent to landfills. “The thought that everything leftover can be donated is a nice thought to hold” but unrealistic, said Mr Cohen.
CVS, for example, said it diverted 50 per cent of its unsold merchandise in 2021 to recycling or reuse, and donated about US$140 million worth of goods to charities such as Feeding America. CVS works “with non-profit organisations to arrange for damaged or near-expired goods from our stores to be donated to communities in need”, said spokesman Ethan Slavin.
Mr Andrew Mastrangelo, a spokesman for TJX, the parent company of TJ Maxx and HomeGoods, said “only a very small percentage of merchandise from our stores goes unsold” and most of the unsold merchandise is bought by third parties or donated to charities.
Walgreens, which owns Duane Reade, said it donated 4.5 million kilograms of goods in 2021. “Walgreens works diligently to divert from landfills unsold or discontinued products such as food, toiletries and household items,” said spokesman Candace Johnson.
Even so, some items cannot be donated, including perishable products within one month of expiration. Ms Johnson added: “Products that do not meet applicable standards for donation or liquidation may be discarded in the trash.” NYTIMES