by Sandra Deacon, SCA Web Team
“On my first hike up Half Dome, I was astonished to see trash on the trail. Trash? In this national treasure? This sacred place? On the way back down, my friend and I picked up every single piece of it.” Little did SCA alum Jeff Chen know, these were the first steps in a journey that he would call Pick Up America.
by Sandra Deacon, SCA Web Team
“On my first hike up Half Dome, I was astonished to see trash on the trail. Trash? In this national treasure? This sacred place? On the way back down my friend and I picked up every single piece of it.” Little did SCA alum Jeff Chen know, these were the first steps in a journey that he would call Pick Up America.
“My parents moved to China while I was still in college and one summer I needed a place to live. So, I called Yosemite, looking for a seasonal ranger job. Nothing. They suggested I call the Student Conservation Association. Nothing. But then, SCA called back. Did I speak another language?
Feeling incredibly fortunate, Jeff spent 10 weeks in the summer of 2006 at Yosemite National Park as an SCA Interpretive Intern, roving, educating visitors, chasing black bears and hiking.
“It was a totally life-changing experience. I made my first solo backpacking trip and learned to love the simplicity of having everything you need on your back and all you have to do is keep walking and cook something good to eat.
“It made me realize I could do more. SCA is phenomenal. I haven’t met anyone who has done SCA who is not doing conservation work.”
As a broadcast journalism major, Jeff’s activism began in college where he says he began to connect the dots between consumption, pollution and environmental impact. “I noted the higher cancer rates where there are petrochemical plants and the massive depletion of ground water resulting from bottled water production as well as the piles of plastic water bottles.
“We are turning our resources into rubbish,” he says. “Mountains of rubbish. The US produces an average of 4.3 pounds of rubbish per person per day, according to the EPA , and only a fraction of it ends up in a landfill. The rest is dumped by the roadside, shipped to developing countries to be stripped of valuable metals with toxic plastics then burned, or it ends up in the oceans.
"Where do you start to fix this?
“I had this frickin crazy idea. I would walk across America and pick up trash. And, I would get other people, 20-something people, to volunteer and help. I wanted to start a big youth movement, really grassroots. My idea was to take a tangible, concrete action and hope that people would draw an intangible conclusion on their own.”
During a lunch break on the Ohio River, Jeff spots a plastic graveyard fenced in by a coal barge. Ashland, Ky.
Photo by Paul Zink
Jeff enlisted the support of friends and supporters and together they begin planning and assembling resources to launch Pick Up America. 
They picked a route that is basically a straight line west on secondary roads with as many stops as possible at colleges and in small towns. Beginning in spring of 2010, they set out from Maryland. Averaging 100 pounds of trash per mile, they collect about 1,000 pounds of trash each day they work. As of November 3rd, 2010, when they stopped work for the winter, the Pick Up America crew and friends had traveled 734.8 miles and removed 73,224 pounds of litter -- thirty-six-and-a-half tons! -- with 222 volunteers.
“The first year was so hard. Every day was exhausting and every day I wanted to quit. I kept asking myself, ‘Why am I picking up other people’s trash?’
“But then at the end of each day, there’s hot food and friendship with volunteers and members of local watershed and church groups. Every meal is like Thanksgiving," Jeff says. “It’s so rewarding.
"My hope is that more people will understand, will make an effort to reduce their waste, and that they will commit to making the changes that they want to see in the world.”
If you are near the DC area, you can join in a massive cleanup of the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River  on Sunday, Feb. 27.
To learn more about Jeff Chen and his fellow pickup artists go to www.pickupamerica.org . Pick Up America will start up again in Ripley, Ohio, on March 20th, 2011. If you would like to VOLUNTEER, please call 301-523-1257. PUA is seeking two professional volunteers: an Events Planner and a Website/IT Manager.
This recent documentary profiles their work, their music, and yes, their frustrations about picking up other people's trash.