Twenty-year-old climate activist Edgar McGregor says he’s always been a collector. He has piles of old coins, shards of sea glass, and a bunch of model wooden boats. He likes the process of finding neglected things. So, he says, it kind of makes sense that he became the trash-pickup guy. It’s just another kind of collecting.
In May 2019, as a high school student, McGregor started visiting Eaton Canyon, in Southern California’s Angeles National Forest, to pull empty bottles and discarded wrappers from the bushes every day and grab cigarette butts from the dirt. He’s done this every day since, even when he can only squeeze in a few minutes after long shifts at his job at a warehouse, even when the Santa Ana winds rip up the canyon, and even when the Bobcat Fire crept within miles of the park. Earth Day marked his 637th day in a row. On the 589th day, which fell on March 5, he declared it “clean,” but he’s still going back to make sure no new trash has appeared, and now he’s starting to clean other local parks, too, because he knows addressing pollution is a long game.
McGregor is not yet old enough to drink alcohol, but he’s been a climate activist for years—he was recognized for his amateur climatology work at 17—and he’s headed to San Jose State to study meteorology and climate science in the fall. He’s dubbed this latest project #EarthCleanUp and is documenting it on his exceedingly charming Twitter page. (His March announcement that Eaton Canyon was “completely free of municipal waste” garnered over 100,000 likes.) It is the best way he knows to address environmental degradation and human damage: start doing something, and just don’t stop, then see where it takes you. We could all probably learn a little from his mission. We spoke to McGregor recently on a break from picking up trash.
On Getting Started: “When I was 18, I started striking every week as part of the school strikes for the climate crisis, in front of California’s Pasadena city hall, with a sign that showed the change in average temperature in Pasadena, where I live. I wanted my local politicians to see how much it could impact my local area. And striking was nice, but I couldn’t really feel any kind of difference, so I started cleaning up trash in the park after my strike every week. Trash would show back up in an area I’d cleaned faster than I could pick it up every week, so I started going every day.”
On Why He Chose Eaton Canyon: “It’s really close to downtown L.A., so you don’t need to drive through the mountains. It’s basically right near the freeways, and it’s pretty flat, but it’s amazing out there. It’s cool and forested, and Eaton Canyon Falls flows pretty much year-round. Even in 2020, when we had eight months without rain, it was still flowing. The park is at about 1,000 feet elevation, but it sits at the base of extremely tall mountains. From my park, I can take trails basically all the way up to British Columbia. It’s a gateway from L.A. into the natural world.”
On the Weirdest Stuff He’s Seen: “I found a pool chlorine dispenser in the river once, that was weird. But the thing I was most surprised about were those reflective circles you see on the road. I started cleaning up every day in May of 2019, and in July or August of that year there was a huge storm. It turns out that all of the storm drains for five or six square miles dump into the park, so a ton of those dots washed off the road and ended up in the river. I didn’t know that before, about the storm drains, but when you go out there every day you learn a lot.”
“That’s something I tell people now—when you see rainfall in the forecast, get the trash out of the gutters. You can even throw it into another bush. But if it’s in the gutters, it’s going to get into the waterways, into the ocean.”
On Whether He Gets Angry About the Litter: “Do I get angry? No. If I’m going to be out there every day after working a 12-hour shift at the warehouse with no A/C, I cannot be carrying that anger with me. I just have to enjoy being there. I’m never going to get an answer to those questions about why people throw trash, so it doesn’t do any good. That translates to the climate movement. I don’t want to spend time thinking about the climate deniers and getting angry. We don’t have time. We have to fix this issue now.”
On How He Stays Motivated: “Sometimes I go out for two hours, sometimes I only have ten minutes, but I just really love being out there. The park changes a ton all the time, and you can see it when you’re there.”
On What He Wants to See Happen: “I think we need to pay people to clean up trash. I’ve seen how much daily cleanup makes a difference. We can’t just do it once a year.”
“I heard California governor Gavin Newsom talking during a press conference when the mountains were on fire, and he looked straight at the camera and said, ‘Climate change is real.’ And it’s like, We know! Do something! Come on, man, we have to push this conversation further. Tens of thousands of people die per year because of it.”
“Gavin Newsom needs to get oil drilling out of South L.A. There’s huge fields of oil drilling near minority populations in the most progressive state in the U.S. There’s so much else. We have a monopoly on solar here in the desert Southwest, and we’re not doing enough to harness it. One of the worst environmental catastrophes, in my opinion, is people flying from L.A. to San Francisco—it’s stupid. We need rapid transit, like a bullet train.”
On Greta Thunberg: “One of the things Greta Thunberg did is she changed the climate conversation. It was mired for decades. Even in 2017 or 2018, people were still talking about whether climate change was real. She got all youth activists to say, ‘We don’t care if you don’t understand the science, you’re an idiot, but we’re going to hold the people accountable who said they would do something and haven’t.’”
On the Effects of Climate Change in His Park: “I’m from SoCal, so I enjoy hiking in the heat, but climate change is really present in my park. Last year we had 41 days over 100 degrees and two days over 115. These days it’ll be 120 in September and 95 in January, and we’ll see windstorms and wildfires. I’m worried that the waterfall is going to dry up this year. I planted some native tree saplings, and I use the river to water them, so I’m worried that they’re not going to survive. They’re in their second year. I planted 16, and I already lost six.”
On the Role of Individual Action: “There are a lot of environmental actions I can do and some things I can’t. I cut back on beef and fish, I pick up trash, but I can’t not drive a car, because I live in L.A. and I have to get to work. So I say, pick something, really anything, and then be vocal about it and about why you’re doing it. Other things will follow suit.”
“I think this is something that people get mixed up: individual action and systematic climate action are two sides of the same coin. If you don’t have individual action, you won’t have systematic change. And at the same time, when we have systematic change, it makes individual action easier. It’s a positive feedback loop. We see it in nature, too.”