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Pick Up America is picking up St. Louis' trash — one dildo at a time

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Greg Katski found a sex toy on the side of the highway somewhere in southern Ohio. He specifies: It was a dildo. He happened upon meth kits in the middle of nowhere, Indiana, and has found needles all over the country. He found some in St. Louis.

In the more than 200 days that Katski's group, Pick Up America, has spent traveling the country's highways and picking up its litter, they've also found a surprising number of family photos. At night, after days spent cleaning the highways and byways, the zero-waste promoters pin the found photos onto a board in their reappropriated school bus and make up stories that the people in them might have had. The same goes for love letters. "One was kind of sad, from this man to his ex-girlfriend about how he wanted her back," Katski says. "It was all crumpled up, like she had thrown it out the car window."

In the seventeen months since the project began, the group's seven members — six men and one woman — have picked up more than 118,000 pounds of litter across 1,100 miles of road. In July, they tackled the streets of St. Louis, though they are currently doing much of the same somewhere along I-94.

"The bus is pretty legit, but it has no AC, which sucks right about now," Katski says. Katski's tan skin is almost as dark as his brown acid-wash shirt, and he's wearing sunglasses attached by a strap to his neck. The muscles on his right hand are pronounced due to their frequent contact with a trash-grabber. "It's really hot out there."

Jeff Chen founded Pick Up America to make a statement about transitioning to a zero-waste community. Chen, who, like the rest of the group, is in his twenties, was an intern at Yosemite National Park when he found the idea on the ground around him. Walking the park's Half Dome trail, he noticed it was littered with trash. He and a friend picked up every piece of it.

That was just the beginning. Aside from four months taken off from November to March of this year to avoid freezing, they have been picking up trash ever since. They started off the coast of Maryland at Assateague Island in March 2010 and made it all the way to Ripley, Ohio.

This year's work will end with the snow somewhere along the Kansas-Colorado border. "That we can do, maybe," Katski says. "Kansas is pretty big, and to literally walk across it, oh my god. At least it won't be summer."

On a scale of one to ten, with one being pristine and ten being the filthy landscape that is southern Ohio, Katski rates St. Louis a four. In the past month, the group has traveled through the suburbs ("ridiculously clean"), the Loop ("the other side of Delmar was gross") and East St. Louis, where they staged community cleanup events across two weekends.

"St. Louis is way cleaner than average," Katski says. "In southern Ohio, we picked up a metric ton of trash in less than eight hours. It's just a filthy place, and it's been a lot better since we got out of there."

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