Follow your bliss, the saying goes. For Baltimore resident Eli Pousson, that involves picking garbage off the streets.
With every half-eaten lollipop, food wrapper and discarded fork he stashes with gloved hand into his collection bag, he seems to be telling the city: “I love you.”
When he first started last year, “neighbors thought it was a little weird,” says Pousson, 34, who works for for the nonprofit preservation group Baltimore Heritage. “Now they think, ‘Eli just likes to pick up trash.’ Every neighborhood has their quirks.”
For the month of April, Pousson is inviting people around the state to join his bliss through an effort he’s dubbed the #30daysofpickinguplitter challenge. Every day, he posts a photo of his trash haul to Twitter and Instagram, and encourages others to do the same.
In recent days, posts on the Twitter hashtag reflect that the movement is indeed “picking up.” One person posted a photo of two bags of trash collected in Ellicott City; another showed off his haul in Dundalk, noting he “took more food from @MrTrashWheel.”
Other posts have come from Annapolis, St. Mary’s County, Gwynns Falls, Salisbury and others locations around Maryland.
Pousson has gotten other organizations and some state leaders on board.
“He sort of challenged us,” said Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland. The organization has posted information about #30daysofpickinguplitter on its social media channels and created a “pledge” to encourage people to commit to pick up trash throughout the month.
The idea of picking up trash isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Van Stone and others acknowledge many in Baltimore already do it without posting pictures of detritus on social media.
Still, she sees the campaign is a way to “create more consciousness and community around daily action.”
“Hopefully it’s just a playful way to almost gamify what people are already doing, and just make it a little more exciting to pick up trash,” she said.
The organization has also used the #30daysofpickinguplitter hashtag to spread the word about other community cleanup and donation events.
State Del. Robbyn T. Lewis, who represents District 46 in the southwest area of the city, said she has been picking up trash on a daily basis since she moved to Baltimore in 1999.
“I’m not going to sit around and let trash be around my house,” she said. She teases Pousson about the challenge: Really, she says, it would be better if people picked up trash every day of the year, not just during April. Nevertheless, she joined the effort and encourages others to do the same.
“If everybody picked up a piece or two of trash every day, we’d be in a different city,” she said.
Pousson agrees. He knows doing something small every day toward a greater good can be very effective — his own daily routine proves that.
“When you do it every day, it’s actually not that much,” he says. But if he lets the area go a week without picking up trash, the difference is noticeable.
Studies show litter can affect people’s mental health. A 2003 Johns Hopkins study determined that living in a “stressful neighborhood” — with litter being among the factors — is predictive of depression.
Perhaps, then, it follows that picking up trash is an anti-depressant.
“It makes me happy,” said Pousson.
On a recent Tuesday, he was joined by his daughters Dahlia, 7, and Naomi, 5, who were dressed in their school uniforms. The girls sometimes scoff at their dad’s habit. He picks up litter every morning as he walks them to school and “it makes him very late,” says Dahlia.
But on this day, they were helping.
Toting crinkled grocery bags and each wearing a single blue glove, the girls gamboled the blocks from their home in Harwood to Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, picking up bits of refuse with great enthusiasm. Pousson says they get excited whenever they find loose change. He’s tried to convince them they should donate it to charity, but they don’t necessarily agree.
“Eeeeeeeeeyuccccckkkkk,” said Dahlia, hunched over a pile of leaves mixed with garbage. “I got some weird stuff.” She tossed a cigarette butt into her bag.
“Oh gosh,” added Naomi, nearly falling backward after squatting on the curb to grab some trash a few yards away. “Baby doll shoe.”
What’s the grossest thing they’ve ever picked up?
“A can of soda that still had soda in it,” said Naomi.
“Eeeeeeyuck!” said Dahlia.
After the girls ran up the steps to their school, Pousson continued his quest for trash around the school. He tossed a foil chips bag and plastic foam cup into his collection sack.
He hopes his efforts are making an impression.
“We used to have a big problem with trash in the basketball court,” he said. People would discard all manner of junk and trash. But not as much anymore. Once people see a place is cared for, he thinks, others will care for it too.
It’s the little things that can ruin a day, but just a little effort can turn it around. A glass bottle can be picked up before it shatters and creates a huge mess.
“If I can pick up a pile of dog poop and that saves someone from stepping in it, then I have perhaps made their day a whole lot better, without them even knowing it,” Pousson said.