When most people see a fast-food bag fluttering on the corner of the highway, they probably shake their heads and keep on driving. The Pick Up Artists aren't most people. These four young environmentalists are driving across America, conducting roadside cleanups and spreading the word about reducing waste.
After just three months on the road, the Pick Up America project has already collected more than 37,000 pounds of garbage. And they're only 340 miles into their 2-year, cross-country trip.
The project began March 20 at Assateague Island, Md. They aim to arrive in their final destination, San Francisco Bay, Calif., around August 2011.
The team knew what they were getting into when they launched their quest, but the amount of trash they have encountered has already surprised them. "I had no concept there was that much garbage out there," says Kelly Klein, Pick Up America's director of community outreach. "That was a big shocker for me."
Most of the garbage is what you'd expect: beer bottles, soda cans, cigarette packs and fast-food wrappers. "We can tell what the most popular beers and restaurants are in each area," says Klein. There are also plastic bags – lots and lots of plastic bags – as well as more distressing items like rusting appliances, smelly diapers and the weirdest thing they've encountered so far: a dead chicken lovingly taped up into an old shoebox.
A lot of the garbage has been there a long time. "It's amazing how many years some of this has obviously been sitting on the sides of our roads and in ditches," says Klein.
Pick Up America isn't just about collecting garbage. "We're trying to promote the transition into a zero-waste society," says Klein. "We're hoping to raise awareness and show people a few things that they can do, and raise issues about the broader consumption stream and habits that make a difference in the long term."
As they move from town to town, the team spreads the word about their mission and their goals, including holding zero-waste workshops and other events. "We promote reusable products as the first step we can take to stop making and producing as much plastic," says Klein. "That plastic ends up sticking around forever. It's doing a lot of damage to our environment."
"There's been great support from the communities we've gone through," says Klein. "Many people have helped us already." In addition to showing up for roadside cleanup projects, people have offered meals or opened up their homes so the team can shower or sleep. "They also help us connect with others in their community," says Klein. "That's been wonderful to see."
Every day is a new adventure, Klein says. "It's very rare that we know where we're sleeping that night. We almost always find a place. With a very few exceptions we've found couches and floors to sleep on." So far, they have only had to spend a few nights in their brightly painted RV, nick-named Rosie (at left).
Not as many people have been willing to help pick up trash so far, but every volunteer makes a difference, says Klein.
5-7 Miles A Day
The pick-up process is slow work. "If it's just the four of us, we can cover 5 to 7 miles a day," says Klein. "That's a bit slower than we expected." If volunteers show up, they can move a bit faster.
The team had also hoped to do more community clean-up projects, but the roads are their top priority. "The roads are so dirty that in order for us to keep moving we haven't been able to do as many other projects as we'd thought," says Klein. But, she says they know they are already making a difference, so the effort is worth it.