Pick Up America: Coast-to-Coast Cleanup

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A few weeks ago, hours after attending my own going away party in Denver, Colorado, I came upon a young man standing outside a bus, asking, "Want a tour?" I thought he was offering to drive us around Denver and show us all the places that Elway or Tebow may have slept but he meant a tour of the bus itself, Due West. We came aboard and quickly realized that this was no ordinary bus and these ambitious young folks, Mark and Liz, were no ordinary bus dwellers. They were part of an incredible project called Pick Up America, a coast-to-coast roadside litter pickup effort.


Pick Up America

Arches National Park. Photo by Jeff Chen.

 

"Our mission is to pick up trash across the country, educate, and encourage a transition toward zero waste. Through community litter clean-ups and outreach events, the Pick Up Artists encourage alternatives to our nation’s throwaway mentality. The trek began at Assateague Island, Md., in March 2010 and plans to span 13 states to the San Francisco Bay in November 2012. Come walk a few miles, will ya?"

--Pick Up America website

Weeks later, after getting settled in my own project (organic farming in North Dakota), I tracked down the group and caught up with one of the Pick Up America co-founders, Jeff Chen. He's a busy guy, doesn't get much sleep but I had to know the story behind it this inspiring - and no doubt smelly - effort to improve the landscape .

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What are the latest stats?

We haven't updated the site in awhile but right now, we're at 165,000 pounds of trash across 2600 miles. Our route has changed a bit. We had to cross the desert before the Rockies. From June-August, we cross the Rockies, then September in California, mid-to-late October in the Bay Area.

Where did the idea come from?

I interned at Yosemite in 2006. The SCA (Student Conservation Association) does send students to intern in national forests to learn about preservation and conservation of resources in our country. It was an amazing opportunity. On a day off, I hiked to the top of Half Dome - a 17-mile hike there and back. On the way up, huffing and puffing, I noticed trash on the side of the trail and decided that, on the way down, I'd pick up every piece of trash we could find.

Later, I thought, 'We're in a national park, a place that enjoys the highest level of conservation. Why is there a single piece of trash? Why do we have trash in the most preserved area?'

I've always wanted to walk across the country to meet people. I think it's important to understand people in these different landscapes. In 2010, Davey and I, Kelly and Kim, the four co-founders of the project, realized the time was right and we decided to do it.

We're taking the message beyond litter and talking about zero-waste. The question is, why do we, as humans, even create this thing called waste? Picking up litter is a waste of time, because it'll just come back. Look how many litter pick-up groups there are!

We have to get into the community and talk to students about the root problem, which I think, is our unhindered need for consumption. And we can use eco-art projects in communities to have a conversation about waste. It's important for my generation to get reconnected with our resources. There's been some studies that say our generation isn't as connected as others.

Why did you pick that time frame, March 2010 to November 2012?

I'd graduated and worked out west for a year and didn't know my next move. So, Pick Up America sounded good. We thought it would be a year and a half but it's turned in to three years.

What do you do with all the trash?

We pick it up, and each day, depending on the amount, we can walk .6 miles or 36 miles with our group. We pick it up, bag it up and leave it next to the road. The Department of Transportation will pick up our bags but they don't care if it's recycling or trash so if we want to recycle we have to take it ourselves.

And do you do that?

Every county and state has different laws, it's a very fragmented system. There's no consistency. one place will only do #1s and #2s, while another place will recycle up to #7. A lot of people don't understand what can be recycled and reused. In rural places, there's a long-haul problem.

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