Pick Up America: Coast-to-Coast Cleanup

5 years ago

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.

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 .


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.

Yes, it depends on where you are.

We're using all this plastic and the reason is, it's so cheap. There's subsidies but I don't think the idea of recycling is ever gonna take off. We're never going to be able to recycle 100 percent and we'll never be able to reuse all the stuff we've recycled. As long as the price of virgin resources is lower than the recycled resources…

That's one issue we have to address. Why are these other industries subsidized so much? That's the deeper lesson of Pick Up America. We're walking and picking up trash but we're also doing education programs for students.

Jeff Chen, on the Ohio River in Ashland, KY. Photo by Paul Zink.


How have you gotten the word out to secure a crew?

This summer, we'll have 13 people. Whenever we come to a place, we'll send out an advance team to contact media, churches, student groups, schools, community organizations, whatever - that's how we get the word out.

It gets in the media a lot because we come off as a group of crazy kids walking across the country picking up trash - they don't get the deeper mission. The real impact is education. We spend so much time in schools, hopefully planting some seeds. To date, we've talked to about 9,000 students

We have to stay encouraged and we find our inspiration in the people that we meet. The people that we meet, they take us in and feed us for days. Oh my, they are so amazing!

Are you seeing the country at its best and worst?

Exactly! It's a bi-polar journey. You spend all day picking up trash and viewing America through its waste stream, picking up people's bad habits - minute after minute, hour after hour. To come home to a wonderful host - pot luck, church meal, host family - revives us for the next day.

Does the crew get paid?

We're all volunteers. We like to say that we try to run a non-profit. There's four of us on the leadership team and then we take interns every year. We try to raise enough money for food and fuel. Our crew is getting bigger. We have a decent amount of women on the team. We joke that we tend to attract lesbians - maybe the alternative lifestyle?

We'll have more people in the summer - college interns. Some people stay for months, others only for a month or two.

How do meals work? How do you cook at night?

We don't have a grill, we build fires. We have a Coleman stove, a camping stove. We rely on fossil fuels in the things that we buy, just as much as anyone else. I don't want to be a hypocrite here!

What's your annual budget?

Around $80,000 - pretty low in terms of scale for a non-profit.

And the bus runs on vegetable oil?

It runs on veggie oil at 20-30 miles per hour but it mostly runs on diesel. And none of us are mechanics.

The bus (called Due West or D-Dubs for short) is amazing. A kitchen, a couch and all those bunk beds! How many does it sleep?

We've got six bunks, one couch and a room where, sometimes, you can hang a hammock inside. Comfortably, it fits seven. Uncomfortably, it can sleep more. I usually end up sleeping on the roof, the place just starts to smell like hot farts after awhile.

What's been people's response to Pick Up America?

The number one response we hear: "You should come to my house and pick up all my crap!" We're sick of hearing that. What does that say about our society? We're overcluttered. We're watching the demise of our culture on our HD TVs.

Sometimes we get into debates on energy consumption - that may have been a touchy subject in West Virginia, but we feel strongly in some sense that these conversations are important. The mining waste and industrial waste is far greater than the waste we produce in household trash. I read that there exists about 70 pounds of industrial and mining waste for every pound of household waste; it takes energy to create things.

So, in the US, energy comes from coal. In burning coal, there's all this waste, all the materials, plastic injection molding, consumption of water, all these processes, that we don't consider or think about long-term. We're young and we're not trying to be too confrontational about things. We want it to be a positive outcome. We're trying to find a balance of that because we rely so much on people. We're not just here to criticize.

KJ Donoghue picks up trash. Photo by Lily Berman.


It's a trashed up world that you are inheriting so I think you have every right to speak up. What are your plans post-Pick Up?

I don't know. I've certainly met a lot of people. I think one of the most important things I've learned is that I need to grow my own food. The people that do this, I feel like they have a certain stability in their life. They know how to take care of themselves, how to feed themselves.

I've been looking at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs a lot lately but yeah, I'm gonna grow my own food and probably stay involved in conservation. I think it's important that we have an Earth to live on.


Pick Up America is currently in Denver, working on an art project through early July. If you'd like to offer support - food, money, hot showers, mechanical skills, a parking spot or trash duty - at any point along their journey, PLEASE get in touch: 301/523-2879 or iwanna@pickupamerica.org.


BlogHer Section Editor, LIFE & GREEN; Proprietor, ClizBiz and Second Chance Ranch


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