Team travels across country picking up, recycling trash

Moving mile by mile, the team of volunteers at Pick Up America have seen much as they gathered trash along the country’s roadways.

In Maryland, they found a chicken duct taped to a shoe box. One spot along the Ohio River, the receded waters left behind a contour of plastic bottles so thick it took a single day to move just over a half-mile.

And in Missouri, the team picked up enough aluminium beer cans to joke that their trip is partially sponsored by the drunk drivers of the Show Me State.

But mostly the team has discovered heaps of wasted natural resources thoughtlessly tossed out of car windows. It’s an image they want to share with the rest of us.

“All the things we view as trash, what ends up on the side of the road and things we throw away every day, are not necessarily trash. They are a natural resource that we are making a decision to stuff in a landfill. And that does no one any good,” Jeff Chen.

Chen, a 25-year-old University of Maryland alumni, is cofounder of the nonprofit Pick Up America. The idea come from a dream to walk across the country and was combined by an experience he had as a student conservation volunteer at Yosemite National Park. The trail to one of the park’s most popular attractions, Half Dome, was covered in litter.

“We are just idealistic kids. When we dream up something weird and ridiculous we just try to do it,” Chen said.

A year ago in March, the team launched from the coast of Maryland and by November had made it to Ohio, where they stopped for the winter. Their work resumed last March in Ohio and the goal is to make it to Denver by November. By November 2012, they hope to reach the San Francisco Bay.

So far, they’ve collected more than 125,000 pounds of trash. But, the group’s mission isn’t just about picking up the country’s litter. Chen said they want to spread a message of zero waste.

As they move across the country, the team has discovered that much of what they collect can’t be recycle because the nearby communities don’t have the facilities to accept the different kinds of plastics.

“I would say that 20 percent of the things that are picked up are actually recyclable. When you get to a bigger city, you are able to recycle a lot more. You try to do what you can. But the system isn’t working in our favor,” Chen said.

Chen and his group are still looking for volunteers for the Midwest Litter Fest, a Sept. 24 event which will have teams helping pick up trash on a 45-mile route from Johnson County to Lawrence. It’s one event that Chen hopes will inspire others to keep their roadways clean and reduce their consumption.

“We want to get people out there to see trash with us, to see what is on the side of the road. Once they see it, maybe they will get hooked and maybe make a commitment to reducing the plastic in their life,” Chen said.

Details of events:

Pick Up America along with the Blue River Watershed Association and Cans for the Community is hosting the Midwest Litter Fest on Sept. 24. The event will tackle a 45-mile stretch of road from Roeland Park to Lawrence.

The organizers are looking for 20 to 25 teams of between four and 10 people to help collect litter along a two-mile section of the proposed route. Volunteers will meet a 8 a.m. at Shelter No. 12 in Shawnee Mission Park for breakfast and a safety briefing. Teams will help pick-up litter from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and return back to the shelter for a victory photo.

All participants can receive a T-shirt. To register or find out more information go to

By Christine Metz


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