One person’s trash is another person’s treasure

Soleil Sabalja doing a dumpster dive. 
Soleil Sabalja doing a dumpster dive. 
Courtesy Soleil Sabalja

Soleil Sabalja grew up in Westchester, NY, along the Hudson River, thus she always loved the water.

Sabalja now lives in the Lower East Side neighborhood, close to the East River, so she has seen “the huge need to protect our waterways from the trash that ends up on our streets,” she added.

Anna Sacks grew up in the Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan, and she still lives there. She became curious and started dumpster diving six years ago, after she returned to NYC following the Jewish farming fellowship Adamah.

Sabalja started the collective Nasty New Yorkers in 2020, when she noticed lots of community groups doing cleanups. She was inspired by the Instagram account JusticeforGeorgeNYC, which kept track of all the George Floyd daily protests happening in NYC at that time.

“I thought there should be a similar account with all the community cleanups that were happening. When I realized there was no aggregate account, I created one and just started reposting all the cleanups that were happening. I started connecting with the groups and attending the events. It’s an incredible grassroots community,” she continued.

The collective organizes community cleanups, with the focus of getting community members involved in them and highlighting neglected neighborhoods or areas known as environmental justice areas (EJAs), thus helping those in need and also keeping our communities and their environments clean and safe.

Soleil Sabalja's high school students participating in a community cleanup.
Soleil Sabalja’s high school students participating in a community cleanup. Courtesy Soleil Sabalja 

According to the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, environmental justice areas (EJAs) are defined as “low-income or minority communities located in the City of New York, based on US Census data.” They “have been and continue to be more vulnerable to potential environmental injustices due to factors including history of systemic racism and inequitable resource distribution,” the website stated.

Sacks, who does her dumpster dives with friends sometimes, also shared more about her finds. “When dumpster diving near businesses, I often find lots of food. When near residential areas, I often find books, toys and household items,” she continued.

Additionally, Sacks shared what she does with them, and why. “When I find many of my treasures, they are open for the public to take what they need or want. In Judaism, there is a hierarchy of giving. At its highest level, the recipient doesn’t know the person giving, therefore keeping it anonymous to preserve dignity.”

Sabalja stated that she has had really great experiences with the cleanups, which have led her to meet environmentalists here in NYC and abroad. “ The best experiences of doing what I do is just receiving thank yous from the local community members and neighbors when they see me out on the streets picking up trash,” she said.

Soleil Sabalja (right) is collaborating with other community groups.
Soleil Sabalja (right) is collaborating with other community groups. Courtesy Soleil Sabalja

For Sabalja, who is a high school teacher in the Manhattan neighborhood of East Village, the biggest successes with the collective include being able to work with her local NYC Council member, Chris Marte.

Sabalja also teaches an Environmental Activism class and an environmental club, Green Team. “Being able to engage young people in the movement and see them become activists has really been a beautiful moment for me to see as well. There is nothing like seeing the next generation bloom into powerful changemakers,” she shared.

Sacks believes success would be seeing specific legislation be passed, on providing access to composting, as well as reducing the overall amount of waste being produced and sent to landfills. Furthermore, she believes that raising awareness about useful items being wasted helps make an impact, because it helps to destigmatize the dumpster diving process.

“One of my main goals with Nasty New Yorkers is to uplift and share the amazing work of others, particularly that of BIPOC groups and groups during work in underserved communities,” Sabalja said.

To stay updated on Anna Sacks and her dumpster diving journey, those interested can follow her on Instagram here: Follow her on TikTok here:

To stay updated on the work of Soleil Sabalja and her collective Nasty New Yorkers, interested persons can follow the collective on Instagram here: