Pick Up One, Pick Up America: Cleaning up public land, one piece of trash at a time

Companies and individuals are coming together to show how one piece of trash can help bring real change to our environment and our world
Hand holding trash in front of sunset over mountain range

This story first appeared on Roadtrippers in July 2019.

Today it feels as though everyone lives digitally—always buried in their phones, frantically scrolling and tapping. Despite this, the number of visitors to U.S. public lands has steadily increased year over year. In fact, according to a report released by the Center for Western Priorities (CWP), more than 290 million people visited national public lands in 2018—that’s more than the number of people who visited zoos and aquariums, watched the Super Bowl, or attended every 2018 NFL, NBA, and MLB game combined.

It sounds somewhat counterintuitive, but thanks to social media and our instant access to information, people are now learning about places that, just a few years ago, they never knew existed. The secret is out: Spending time in beautiful, wild places recharges the human spirit.

There’s another secret that isn’t as widely shared or seen on the Instagram explore page: As more individuals get out and experience the outdoors, they leave more traces of their visit behind. And these traces largely come in the form of trash.

A mutually beneficial relationship

Two years ago, I moved into an RV van full-time. This has enabled me to travel across the country and brought me closer to my true passion: rock climbing. Even hundreds of feet up, tucked away in a tight rock crevasse, I still find pieces of trash. As I began to see this more and more, I started to reflect—not just on the negative impact of trash, but on my own connection with our planet. Ultimately, I came to this realization: Our relationship with nature is selfish—but it doesn’t have to be. I believe that as outdoor enthusiasts, our relationship with nature should be a mutually beneficial experience.

Take national parks, for example. These precious, preserved places offer some of the most incredible views in the world. However, every year, more than 100 million pounds of trash is generated by visitors at Denali National Park in Alaska, Yosemite in California, and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. And to think that’s just three out of the 61 national parks in the U.S. (never mind the 10,000 state parks).

What many people don’t realize is that this trash isn’t just cluttering campgrounds; it’s also defiling fishing streams and causing harm to animals that ingests the discarded materials. Whole ecosystems are impacted by one simple act.

This idea used to torment me. I could picture planet earth looking at us asking: “What have you done for me lately?” But rather than feeling angry or thinking about all the harm that could be prevented, I decided to do something.

In July 2017, I founded an organization called Pick Up One. My mission at Pick Up One is to encourage cleaner lands and create a community of caretakers—a culture of everyday environmental activists who think deeply about how their actions affect the planet. The more time I spend outside, the more I view myself not just as a rock climber or an RVer, but as a caretaker of the ecosystem I am so graciously experiencing. And I want to share that with others.

At Pick Up One, all I ask is that one person pick up at least one piece of trash every time they go outside, and tell one other person about the mission. Micro actions can have a macro impact if they are done repeatedly and shared with others, and there’s proof in that. Since its foundation, Pick Up One participation has spread to over 30 different countries.

Got one!

Recently, I learned that I am not alone in my quest for cleaner lands. Thor Industries, the world’s largest RV manufacturer, and Kampgrounds of America (KOA), the largest network of privately held campsites in the U.S., have partnered to launch Pick Up America—a pledge to pick up 50 tons of trash across public lands in 2019. This multi-year partnership between the two companies kicked off in May, right at the start of summer and the peak season for camping. As hikers, campers, and RVers spread out across the country, they were asked to keep an eye out for trash along the way.

While 50 tons may seem like an audacious goal, the two companies don’t plan on doing it alone. Thor and KOA are calling on everyone who loves the outdoors to get out, collect at least one bag of trash, and share their work on social media (you can even follow along at #PickUpAmerica).

So I did just that.

As I set out to climb the boulders at Mount Woodson in San Diego, California, I told myself I would use the trip as an opportunity to honor my own organization and the newly discovered Pick Up America. I even shared the campaign goals with my two climbing partners so they could keep an eye out for trash as well. The priority for the trip was cleaner lands—the climbing was just a nice added bonus.

Scaling the first set of rocks, I heard my partner below me suddenly yell, “I got one!” After realizing he meant a piece of trash, this quickly became a slogan for the rest of the climb. Randomly throughout the day, someone would yell “got one!” and another piece of trash would fall victim to our mission. Our shouts attracted the attention of other climbers who wanted to know what we kept “getting.” After we shared the reasoning, many thanked us and some even agreed to do the same.

If we saw trash, we would pick it up and stash it. It was that simple. This was not some sort of labor intensive initiative. In fact, it barely even slowed us down. And at the end of the day, once we’d reached the summit of our climb, I looked at my fistfuls of trash with pride, not annoyance. To me, this wasn’t just trash but tangible evidence that I was doing right for planet earth. While I may not have single-handedly reached the Pick Up America goal of 50 tons, it felt good to know that I helped chip away at that number.

So the next time you find yourself outside enjoying nature, remember this: We are all caretakers, and it takes no effort to Pick Up One to ultimately help Pick Up America.

All photos courtesy of John Pawluk.

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