10 questions with Edgar McGregor, the 20-year-old climate activist

Edgar McGregor is a 20-year-old climate activist who has spent over 600 days cleaning up trash from the Eaton Canyon park, north of Los Angeles on the edge of Angeles National Forest. 

You’re best known for your clean up in the Eaton Canyon park at the edge of Angeles National Forest. What inspired this initiative?

In May 2019, I was climate striking at my local city alongside thousands of youth climate strikers around the world. While I was out there, I was doing it for a couple of hours a day, and I felt like I could be doing more to help the environment.

So, every Saturday in Spring 2019, I’d go out to my local park and I’d bring a five-gallon bucket with me and I’d go pick up trash. I was doing that for about a month or two until I started to realize that if I actually wanted to clean up my park, I had to go out there every single day. I went, whether I had just gotten off of a 12-hour shift, if it was pouring with rain or 110 degrees. It didn’t matter. I was out there for at least 30 minutes a day, cleaning up.

Why do you think there is so much trash in this particular park? 

We have 11 storm drains that dump storm water from the communities that are higher elevation into the park. So, whenever it rains, my park gets completely trashed. There are also issues of hikers, picnickers, etc., but this is the main source of trash, unfortunately.  

Was it just you alone? Has this clean-up expanded to a team of people?

Most of the time it was just me. Sometimes a family member would tag along. A few fellow climate activists have joined me on occasion. A celebrity actually caught wind about what I was doing about nine months ago – Bradley Whitford, an actor who has appeared on the The West Wing and The Handmaid’s Tale. He joined me on a hike one time with his wife, and it was amazing.

But I prefer to do these clean ups alone. I like to wander around the park, and half the time when I’m on my way to the park, I don’t even know where I’m going to clean up. I decide when I get there. I like the flexibility.

Have you seen other people at the park cleaning up?

I’ve seen some people with buckets and bags, but not as much as I’d like. Today was my 600th clean up day and out of those 600 days, and I think I’ve only seen people cleaning up on maybe four to five of those days. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, there haven’t been volunteers from the Nature Centre cleaning in the park.

Apparently at my community college, the department will have students go out to clean up trash. They have been advised not to go to my park anymore because there’s no more trash! 

What kind of litter are you finding? Have you found anything truly shocking? 

One time I found $50! I find people’s shoes, which is strange. Also phones and masks. I once found a floating chlorine dispenser.

Where I’ve been cleaning up it’s relatively clean but there are a lot of other places within the park that have piles of uncollected trash. At one point, my mother and I had gone out there in October 2020 with huge 40-gallon plastic bags. The trash was so bad in a little canyon, we actually had to do triage we were only collecting the Styrofoam and cigarette butts and lights. But there was so much other stuff. 

Is there recycling, compost, and or garbage bins in the park? If not, do you think this could be why there’s so much litter?  

There are a bunch of highways that go through the forest and on the side. They have dumpsters that they empty every single week, and despite that, there are still huge amounts of trash 50 feet away. Plus, most of our trash cans are by the parking lot. There aren’t any along the trails.

What I’ve learned is that you can put up all the no littering signs and all the trash cans you want, but, unfortunately, it’s not going to necessarily solve these problems any better than picking up after them. I know it makes people angry and confused but you have to hire the workers to pick up the trash. 

Do you think you’ve inspired enough people to keep this park clean for the future?

I really hope so! One of the theories is the “broken glass theory”. If you have a park that is completely clear of trash, people might not litter (hopefully). One thing I pick up are orange peels. While they may be biodegradable, they are still trash, and it just makes the place look dirty. And if the broken glass theory does apply to trash, it throws this theory out the window. 

What do you tell people who are interested in cleaning up the park in their own areas? 

I went out with a bucket and a pair of gloves and I cleaned up Los Angeles’ most popular hiking trail. I didn’t have a special planning committee or email list, or equipment. I just went out there and picked up trash. It’s also really important to have a positive attitude towards picking up trash in order to stay motivated. 

What’s next for you? Are you going to clean up the rest of the parks in California?

I’m going to attend San Jose University in the Bay Area this fall and I’m going to be studying meteorology with an emphasis on climatology, so I’ll have to find new parks to clean. 

Nowadays I’m going to parks nearby. I just went to a brand-new park today. I thought it was going to be relatively clean but I managed to fill my bucket pretty quickly. I’m also curious to see how cleaning up a new park is going to be. It took me a long time to learn about my park and understand where the trash was coming from. So, I’m really interested to see how I’m going to understand the scale of it and hopefully even inspire more people to clean up.

Anything else you’d like to add about your park clean-up? 

Cleaning up in a park has a lot of benefits: You’re helping the environment. You’re getting exercise and getting fresh air. And it’s mentally relaxing. You get to learn about your local ecology and geology, and you get to meet new people. After 600 days of doing this, I really haven’t found a good reason to stop. So bring a bucket and gloves, and you’re all set for a clean-up! 

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