For weeks, he saw it as he walked along a bike path, this half-consumed gallon jug of chocolate milk, souring, separating, coagulating, curdling in the spring sunshine that May, the gases of its decay bloating the plastic like a sated tick.
The moldering milk was not the only trash he noticed on his daily walks – exercise he had taken up to fend off the malaise and midriff bulge brought on by living la vida COVID-19 – but it was among the more notable.
“I’d see the same pieces of crud every day and that jug of chocolate milk for about a month. I was sick of looking at it,” Geoff Galen said. “And I’d think, shouldn’t someone be picking up that crud?”
And then it hit him like a bag of bottles tossed from a passing car.
Well, I can do that.
And so that next day, armed with a grocery bag, gloves and hand sanitizer, he did.
And then he picked up some trash nearby.
And then he picked up some trash on the next street. And then the next street. And then the next.
It became a daily thing, sometimes three to four hours a day, his walks widening to hit more areas in his West Side neighborhood where litter lay.
“It became sort of an obsessive-compulsive thing,” Galen, 62, said. “And then it became something of a competition.”
He had shared his impromptu trash collecting with a niece in Boston, and she had sent him an Instagram link to a group called Just 1 Bag 2020, begun by the New Year’s resolution of a family in nearby Cohasset, Massachusetts, to collect and inspire others to pick up 2,020 bags of trash by the end of this year. Participants are encouraged to take a photo of their putrid booty and tag it with #Just1Bag2020 to share on Instagram.
The idea took off, spreading to 40 states and 36 countries and easily blowing past its goal. So far, about 10,000 bags have been collected, tagged and posted on Instagram, and a new goal of 20,000 bags has been set.
Galen jumped right in.
He also joined #1piecearmy, another Instagram effort with the goal of collecting 1 million pieces of trash across the world.
And he created his own Instagram group among family and a friend – #galenlittergoals, which he said is to connect with siblings scattered across the country, clean up their communities and honor the memory of their environmentalist mother and biologist father.
“All of them bought trash grabbers,” wife Leslie Galen said. “It’s getting a little competitive, but all in good fun.”
As of this week, Galen has collected 366 bags and 25,804 individual pieces of garbage since he began his trash trek May 22. His family’s group has collected more than 450 bags between them.
Galen doesn’t fit the tree-hugger persona, and picking up garbage is not the way he had imagined he would spend his retirement from his job as food and beverage manager for a local casino.
“I traveled a lot, mostly for golf,” he said.
But COVID-19 restrictions changed all that. After two months of doing little else than climbing the walls, he headed outside for morning walks. Besides making his neighborhood cleaner, he has also lost about 20 pounds.
As for what he sees, well, another man’s trash is still another man’s trash. He collects mounds of soda straws, Styrofoam and plastic cups and lids, dirty diapers, bottles, caps and cans. He’s found credit cards, more condoms than you might imagine (or want to), a car tire, five sets of keys, a mattress, used syringes and an empty bottle of expensive Rémy Martin VSOP cognac.
“I mean, why would you litter that?” he wonders.
“And if I can just say, New Mexico, the window of your car is not a garbage can,” he said. “So many people just toss their trash as they drive along. Like, is this an acceptable practice?”
Another pet peeve: the left-behind cardboard boxes used as signs for yard sales.
COVID-19 restrictions have since allowed golf courses to reopen, and you can usually find Galen back on the links three times a week, still collecting trash on the greens. On the other four days, he’s back walking and picking and saving the Earth, one bottle cap at a time.
Because, well, he can do that.
“It’s real easy to complain. It’s real easy to say someone should be doing this,” he said. “But it’s about taking responsibility. It’s about saying, you know this may not be my job, but let’s just make things better.”
GOOD CLEAN FUN
Find #Just1Bag and #1PieceArmy on Instagram. Follow Geoff Galen’s trash adventures under the Instagram handle unc_frog.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a stray cutline at the beginning of the story. It has been removed.