In my dreams, I’m constantly sorting trash. “Waste” is my inescapable obsession and addiction.
Three years ago, I left my job at an investment bank in Manhattan for a Jewish farming fellowship in rural Connecticut. Burned out, I found in the fellowship what my job lacked: time outdoors, spirituality, intentional community, and physical labor.
One of The Adamah Fellowship’s chores, which I loved in theory but hated in practice, was to pull wheelbarrows filled with food scraps up a hill to the chickens’ enclosure. There, our chickens feasted on our scraps, then laid eggs for our consumption. Whatever scraps they didn’t eat would–by the invisible magic of fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates (FBI for short)–turn into compost, which is like Redbull for soil, but healthier. We’d then use the compost, as opposed to commercial fertilizer, on our regenerative farm to grow more food.
And so we would plant, weed, harvest, eat, feed our chickens with our leftovers, eat our chicken’s eggs, compost whatever the chickens rejected (along with their egg shells), and use the compost to plant. And the cycle continued.
Inside the compost yard was a sign with a verse from Tehillim (Psalms): “The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone.” Seeing composting in action, I found beauty in the cycle of decay and growth, and thought,“This makes sense. This is how things are supposed to be.”
When I returned to Manhattan after seven months at Adamah, things I had previously taken for granted jarred me. Why do all the fruits and vegetables at the grocery stores look the same, and why are they wrapped in plastic? Why isn’t everyone composting (don’t they know how magical it is)? How are we producing so much trash each day? The accepted norm now seemed abnormal.
Walking around my Upper West Side neighborhood with alert eyes, I noticed the usable items that we toss: books, children’s toys, ironing boards, plastic storage containers, Keurig coffee machines, metal filing cabinets, dishes, reusable water bottles, and so on.
As a lifelong hater of any waste who, as a child, picked up locks of her just-cut hair from the salon floor and who, as an adult, still is unable to toss those 20+-year-old Ziplocs of saved hair, the unnecessary waste of actually useful items really bothered me.
I began going on “trashwalks”: walking around my neighborhood with a cart, pulling out usable items from the trash and recycle bags, and then keeping or gifting these items to friends, family, and strangers.
At first, I kept what I was doing to myself, as a private hobby. Eventually, after having trouble getting jobs in the sustainability world because of my lack of relevant experience, I posted my finds on my Instagram, which I renamed from “thebananasacks” to “thetrashwalker.”
Walking on the Upper East Side with friends one night, we found bags of CVS’s trash filled with edamame snacks that didn’t expire for eight months. I checked to see if there was a product recall or evidence of mice, both legitimate reasons to toss food, but there wasn’t.
After gathering more evidence of CVS’s unnecessary wastefulness, I emailed the CEO, Larry Merlo (his email was surprisingly easy to find on Google). My years at the investment bank taught me to go straight to the decision maker.
I kept the email short, with photos and the following questions:
1. How will you prevent this [waste] from happening going forward?
2. Relatedly, what is your food donation plan?
The next day one of the regional managers in NYC called and confirmed that my email had reached Larry Merlo, that CVS employees were not allowed to take home any of these unwanted products, and that he received special permission from high up to form local donation partnerships (CVS already had a national partnership with Feeding America, but clearly it wasn’t fully working).
After several months of waiting for change but continuing to see trash bags filled with usable items, I realized that CVS wasn’t going to adjust its national operations in response to one random person’s complaint.
So I began a change.org campaign calling for CVS to #DonateDontDump. Now, instead of one person asking for this change, there are over 300,000 of us asking CVS to donate.
CVS is not the only corporation that intentionally discards usable items. Many do, including Party City, Walgreens, Staples, PetSmart, GameStop, Ulta, Michael’s, and Bath and Body Works.
But I think CVS is a good starting point, given its ubiquity (it’s the largest pharmacy in the U.S.), its do-good image (eliminating cigarettes, for example), and its product selection (items shelters really need, like tampons and granola bars).
Through my trashwalks and CVS campaign, I am applying what I learned at Adamah: that the stone that we reject can (and should) become the cornerstone.