Pick Up America: a cross-country road trip to wipe out waste

Roadside illegal dump outside of Covington, Virginia. A team of Pick Up America volunteers pose with the bounty

A team of Pick Up America volunteers cleaning up an illegal roadside rubbish dump outside Covington, Virginia

Five committed twentysomethings are making a 2,000-mile trek across the US, picking up litter and educating young people and communities about zero waste

Twentieth-century technology has made it possible to mass-manufacture cheaply and has sent automobiles speeding along roadways - a combination that's led to unsightly litter around the world. This rubbish issue is a classic tragedy of the commons, caused by thousands of careless acts committed by thousands of careless people.

Changing our litter habit isn't easy, but five young Americans decided that they'd had it with roadside trash - and set out on a cross-country voyage to take a stand.

The three-year-long trek began on Assateague Island, Maryland, on 20th March 2010, and will snake through 13 states to San Francisco Bay in California, which the group expects to reach sometime in autumn 2012.

'As a campaign we are going to complete a roadside cleanup across the nation,' says Davey Rogner, campaign coordinator for the newly formed non-profit venture, called Pick Up America. As of 3rd November, the Pick Up crew had traveled 734.8 miles and gathered 73,224lb of litter.

For the 2,200 miles across the country, the five walk in shifts along three-mile stretches of roadway across the US, coordinating trash cleanups with local volunteers along the way. They're also teaching communities about reducing plastic and disposable waste.

'We're really trying to educate people across America,' Rogner says. They hope to teach people about zero waste, which not only means more recycling, but cutting back on disposable product and packaging purchases. 'In every aspect of human society, we shouldn't have byproducts of our production,' Rogner says.

The five young men and women - ages 22 to 25 - knew they would be in for the road-trip of a lifetime, but have found the first seven months filled with unexpected twists and turns.

Striking out on their own

In 2006, Jeff Chen was working at Yosemite National Park in California, and was hiking up a mountain when trailside litter began to irk him. 'Why is there trash in a national treasure that we chose to preserve?' Chen recalls thinking. He too had dreamed of one day walking across the US.

Chen met up with Rogner at the University of Maryland, and together they hatched their post-graduation plan. Three women joined the cause, too. Georgia native Johnna Jackson met up with the group while camping out and cleaning up trash at a Tennessee music festival. 'I was in a place in my life where I had ability to just up and go,' she says.

Frequent stops offer the fivesome opportunity to talk with the community about transitioning towards zero waste; other ideas they hope will take root include solar co-ops, community gardens and compost gardens. Part of their zero-waste efforts has involved buying a useless, totalled campervan in Maryland and, with help from the community, bringing it back to life for their journey. In November, the group paused for winter in Ripley, Ohio, to avoid the harsh Midwestern winter and to recruit enough volunteers to double their size. The campervan launches again on March 4th, 2011.

Lessons in zero waste

Next year, they plan to have a diesel engine installed that can use vegetable oil, making their footprint even greener. The group is even toying with the idea of travelling by pack mule once they hit the Rocky Mountains. For lodging, they often crash on a couch or guest bed at the last minute.

Funds for the three-year journey have all come from individual supporters, friends, family and local grassroots groups across the country. They've sold T-shirts and water bottles. They threw fundraisers at home. A grant for cleanup supplies came from Chesapeake Bay Trust. But costs have been minimal for the thrifty twentysomethings who pick up litter every day.

The litter problem is 'a lot worse than we had imagined,' says Jackson. Plastic packaging, aluminium cans and plastic bags that get wrapped around trees are common pick-up items. Much of the rubbish they collect comes in the form of other people's bad habits: drink cans, sweets wrappers, cigarette butts, alcohol, even pornography. Consumption and litter are indicative of our social and economic problems, observes Chen.

Confronting the litter problem on such a daily, personal level for seven months has helped the five think more closely about their own lives. 'I don't think I was living as "zero waste" as I could have,' says Jackson, who has always recycled and has cut out little luxuries that mean excessive waste. Now if she wants a drink and it comes in a plastic bottle, she'll stick with the water in her reusable water bottle.

Miles to Go

'Trash is the most accessible environmental problem of our generation,' says Chen. That's why the focus of this three-year campaign is to 'raise awareness about all the crap we manufacture and consume and throw away,' Chen explains.

Among the biggest litter problem they've encountered is plastic, which has become widely used around the world in disposable packaging meant to be tossed. Plastic bags have been banned or their use discouraged in several countries because of unsightly litter problems, but plastic's persistence in the environment continues to cause harmful global messes, such as the famed ‘Garbage Patch' vortex in the Pacific Ocean, where tiny bits of plastics are dense enough to measure in the water column. A swelling tide of washed-up beach rubbish also chokes, strangles and poisons marine wildlife around the world.

As they pass through town after mid-American town, the group hopes to make some sort of sustainable difference. 'You don't know what kind of effect you'll have in a community,' says Chen, who recalls having dinner with a church group in Ripley, Ohio, that used stacks of Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils. Pick Up America's members talked casually with them about not using so many disposable products. Chats with student groups around the country will hopefully help youths make better decisions about what they choose to buy.

'There is a great deal of litter in America right now,' Rogner explains. 'It's overwhelming to think that we're going to be on the road for another two years, but... maybe we can lead by example.'

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer

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