It’s a cool gray morning at the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland, California. Over 80 volunteers are working along the shoreline picking up trash, pulling out non-native plants, and preparing to restore it to its natural state.
“You would think that you would find like bottles and plastic and stuff, but we found a lot of these white tops. I guess they were like black and mild tops,” says Nneka Anyanwu student from Skyline High School in Oakland.
“They’re like cigar caps,” Brianna Guzman chimes in, another student from Skyline High School. Walking along the shoreline, Guzman explains what else she found: “lots of little scraps of like Styrofoam and plastic, like really small. I didn’t realize it was this bad. I mean you hear about it and I saw pictures, but I thought maybe they’re exaggerating. But it really is. It’s kind of sad.”
The cleanup, organized by the Student Conservation Association (SCA), drew volunteers from across the country, including their alumnus and Jeff Chen, founder of Pick Up America. With a group of four other conservationists Chen set out from Maryland in a biodiesel bus to travel across the country to pick up litter along the road. Since their journey began, they estimated they have picked up over 180,000 tons of litter and walked along highways stretching over 3,500 miles.
“Pick up America is the nation’s first coast-to-coast litter pick up – and we’ve picked up trash from Maryland to the Oakland area. The idea is that we’re picking up litter this time because we want to show how much waste we create as a society. … Our idea is that if we just pick up litter and don’t address the main issue of consumption and waste then the litter is just going to come back,” Chen explains.
In 2006, Chen was inspired as he was walking along a trail while interning for SCA at Yosemite National Park.
“One day I was hiking up to Half Dome and there was trash along one of the trails. I was just like if there is trash in a national park – one of the most preserved and conserved places in the country – then what’s the rest of the country look like? And why do we have this concept of waste that creates all of this litter in the first place?” Chen wonders.
So Chen decided to combine his dream to hike across the country with picking up trash and out came Pick Up America.
“To be honest, it’s been kind of depressing traveling across the country like this,” admits Chen. “We’re viewing the country through our waste stream. … Coming out here, well everywhere there is alcohol everywhere. We are a very addicted society, I think.”
California stands out among other states.
“Every state we’ve gone through the trash is about 50 percent trash and 50 percent recycling. Once we hit California, it became 90 percent trash and 10 percent recycling. I think the reason for that is because California has the bottle deposit and so there is a high economic incentive to keep that litter off the ground,” says Chen.
On the road for nearly three years now, the experience has allowed Chen to meet gracious people from all over the country but there have also been some challenging moments.
“We have a team of seven people. All with different personalities. We live in a bus together. We all have different ideologies and then we’re also in someone’s space all the time because we stay with people. So it’s tough,” Chen says.
The bus is a converted school bus with painted outlines of each state, filled in with trees, hearts, skies, and an assortment of other images.
“The bus can run on waste vegetable oil. It’s one of those tings where we’re trying to get to zero waste so we’re taking a quote on quote waste product and putting it towards something else,” Chen explains.
California is the last stop for Pick Up America. Specifically, San Francisco.
“On November 11, we’re going to have our final celebration at Ocean Beach at 9am. We’re inviting everyone to come out,” Chen says.
Although the trip is wrapping up, Chen says, “It’s not the end of the journey, personally. I’m always going to work towards a future without resource waste for my generation.”