Taking a Roadside Stand

Jeff Chen doesn’t like trashy people. He’s willing to take steps to remedy his dislike. As one of the founders of Picking Up America, Chen is committed to riding our roadways of litter and pointing out American’s wasteful tendencies. 

“It was an idea I had in 2006 when I was an intern in Yosemite Park,” Chen recalls. “I did a pretty epic hike to the top of Half Dome and on the way noticed some trash. On the way down, [my friend and I] picked up every piece of trash that we found.”

The experience inspired Chen, who developed the idea of walking across America’s highway system and chronicling the waste he found.

“I wanted to see the country and pick up trash,” says Chen.

Picking Up America began its year-and-a-half-long trek — across 13 states — on Assateague Island, cleaning roadways as volunteers marched into D.C. The group hopes to cut a path through America’s littered roads before arriving in San Francisco around November of 2011. 

By completing another epic hike, Chen hopes that his group can inspire where other pick-up programs have failed.

“Adopt a Highway programs pick up the trash, but they don’t address the problem,” Chen says. “We’re trying to bring up the subject of waste in our culture.”

The message was well received in Maryland.

“We got a citation, like a good citation, not a bad citation, from the State Highway Administration,” reports Chen, who delivered a State of the Trash Address outlining the Old Line State’s wasteful ways. Picking Up America also got funding.

The Chesapeake Bay Trust gave a $2,415 grant, used to purchase trash pickers, bags and more essential materials. Meager pay, when you consider the group collected 24,092 pounds of garbage — enough to load 16 state highway dump trucks.

It’s the waste that worries Chen most.

“Water bottles and plastic bags are everywhere. Styrofoam, packaging peanuts, too,” he says. “We don’t really need that stuff. It’s such an excess in our society, and there’s ways to get around that stuff — bottles and cloth bags. It’s kind of sad to see that. It really is a reflection of us.”

Another reflection of us are the oddities that Chen and the volunteers have encountered.

“One weird thing was a dead chicken, feathers still on, wrapped up in tape,” reports Chen. “We found a stack of porno, and in Druid Hill Park we found 38 40-ounce bottles filled with pee. A lot of the stuff we find are people’s guilty pleasures. Things we consume that we don’t want people knowing about: candy bar wrappers, soda, porn.”

Chen has plenty of waste, what he really needs now are bodies.

“It’s tough to organize volunteers,” Chen says. “We were able to round up over 100 volunteers thru Maryland. We know people here, so it was a good place to start and try to become professional trash pickers.”

The group is traveling to Arlington, Va., May 15 and still seeking Pick Up Artist volunteers. Offer your services or follow their journey: http://pickupamerica.wordpress.com