When most people graduate from college, they aspire to head to the corporate world, perhaps even work for a Fortune 500 company, but not Davey Rogner and Jeff Chen. Their goal was to walk the streets, plucking empty beer bottles, cigarette butts and even pornography.
"There's nothing exciting about seeing trash, but we've seen it all: from pop bottles to drugs," Chen, co-founder of Pick Up America, said.
The nonprofit project of the Harvest Collective Inc. has a coast-to-coast mission of picking up litter; it started in 2010. Its motto: Stewardship and zero waste through art, education and community.
They began in Maryland with a van and $400. They made it as far as Ohio before taking a short winter break. They proceeded to Colorado, and are now cleaning up Utah. The walk will continue to Nevada and California, stopping at national parks along the way. Although living on the road has been arduous – they collected refuse on foot for 1,300 miles along U.S. highways in 2011 alone – they enjoy spreading the zero-waste message.
"We're walking to a clean future," said Rogner, community action coordinator and co-founder. "Personally, it's about not conforming to a system that's causing so much pain and waste, so we're removing it firsthand.
"Keeping [the U.S.] beautiful sits with the producer's responsibility and encouraging people to recycle. And while changing the waste subsidies comes through policy, there's a personal stewardship, too: Buy things with little packing; compost and recycle as much as possible."
Pick Up America invites others to join in the adventure. The largest amount of volunteers they ever had at one site was 11.
Still, the group's primary goal is education. Zero waste can provide jobs and help with the economic recovery, advocates say.
Rogner said he doesn't expect everyone to follow the zero-waste ethos to the letter, but to do the best they can.
"Doing service every day and expressing my love for the world by active community service, that's what I do to be happy and spiritual," he said.
Lily Berman, image and awareness coordinator of Pick Up America, said she thought Rogner was crazy at first, but then his speech on the project just clicked within her. It's more than picking up litter, it's seeing a problem and taking direct action.
"Every element of this trip enriches who I am. I get to be a hands-on activist who's actively involved in each community," said Berman, a volunteer since November 2010. "You're elbow deep in filthy litter, but then five minutes later you're getting a welcome to have snacks with the townspeople. Zero waste will come slowly, unfortunately, and it does get frustrating picking up the same stuff on the roads. Zero waste is more of an ideal."
According to Chen, his conservation internship in Yosemite National Park inspired Pick Up America's educational component. He said he always wanted to walk across the country anyhow, so why not couple the mission with a community service endeavor?
Since the program's start, the group has upgraded to a school bus, which serves as housing. Occasionally, members bunk at local churches.
All the while they continue to find weird objects along the roads, like a shoebox with a dead chicken inside. They reuse what they can, turning trash into community art projects. For example, the group fashioned a 10-person drum to express their message through music and produced a bench partially made from litter and plastic bottles.
Chen said the ability to create a closed loop of resources, where nothing is being wasted, is what keeps the team out on the roads.
"I'm privileged to be out here doing this. I don't have to have a 9-to-5 job to pay my student loans, so it's an unfair advantage, but it's a certain amount of adventure it takes to do this," he said. "The only constant is the trash."
Although there are times when they want to stop, the greater good keeps the momentum going.
"It's hard to measure if we're really making an impact," Chen said. "We're trying to 'wow' people with roadside litter, but at the same time trying to educate. So in some sense we've made both a small and huge impact.
Rogner said anyone wanting to connect with the environment can participate.
"We've had an 18-year-old college student, a recovering alcoholic, to an Iraqi war vet volunteer for us," he said. "Every day is an adventure."
Coming up, Pick Up America plans to hike across the Rockies, host another Yosemite National Park cleanup and try to eradicate trash in the San Francisco Bay area. The group plans to end the walk in 2013 to take a break and find a new environmental mission.
"I've always worked for something that I really believe in; I've never pictured myself wearing a business suit," said Berman.