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So far, Pick Up America has walked more than 340 miles and removed more than 37,000 pounds of solid waste from the nation's landscape. Photos: Pick Up America.

By Jenni Spinner

Litter is a problem that affects nearly every aspect of public works. Tossed-away trash creates an eyesore in parks, an annoyance for road crews, and a possible groundwater contaminant. Wherever discarded water bottles and empty chip bags land, they constitute an ugly blight on America's landscape.

The grass-roots group Pick Up America (PUA) is eradicating errant trash and educating the public about the evils of litter by leading volunteer crews on a trek across the country to retrieve waste from roadsides, national parks, and other sites. The group began its hiking odyssey in Maryland on March 20. By the end of June, PUA's litter-fighting force had amassed more than 37,000 pounds of waste.

Jeff Chen, one of the group's founders, was hiking in Yosemite National Park four years ago, reached the top of a trail, and noticed a saddening amount of solid waste dotting the ground. He later struck up a friendship with fellow environmental advocate Davey Rogner and they hatched the idea for a national anti-litter effort.

“The real mission of the journey is not just making it across the country, but to provide inspiration,” says Rogner. “We're giving up our lives in service to convey a message that there is no waste, just lost resources. We want to engage people in dialogue — there are more efficient ways of dealing with trash, rather than sending it to landfills or throwing it out windows.”

One point the group hopes to drive home: The cost of litter to public agencies is more than just aesthetics. According to PUA Recycling Consultant Sam Goering, the bad habit of littering and failure to recycle can affect an agency's bottom line.

“States save about $1 per pound of trash that PUA picks up,” says Goering. “This amounted to a little more than $24,000 in Maryland alone.”

To date, a number of public agencies have taken notice of PUA's mission and partnered with the group. Maryland's State Highway Administration (SHA) in April praised the group's volunteers for their efforts.

“It reminds us of the fragility of our environment and the importance of preserving our natural resources,” says SHA Administrator Neil Pedersen. “Even one-half hour of time is a tremendous and appreciated contribution to help keep Maryland beautiful.”

According to the SHA, after less than a month of work, PUA forces had collected more than six tons of trash and saved taxpayers $13,000 in litter removal costs.

In addition to organizing pick ups at stops along their route, the organization presents workshops, produces zero-waste presentations, and sells merchandise to help spread the word. The group plans to reach San Francisco by late 2011 or early 2012. Local volunteers can join them at one of the pick-up sites listed on http://pickupamerica.wordpress.com.

“We hope to engage with communities along the way to let them know that this green paradigm shift needs to happen ASAP, and that they can get involved by simply changing their daily habits,” says Goering.

— Jenni Spinner is a Chicago-based freelancer and former associate editor of PUBLIC WORKS.