Cleaning Up California
By Brett Bralley
Climate science student and activist Edgar McGregor is making the world a tidier place — one piece of trash at a time.
Edgar McGregor, ’23 Climate Science, didn’t have a huge epiphany. He didn’t wake up one morning deciding to embark on a nearly 750-day mission to clean up Eaton Canyon, a natural reserve in Los Angeles County. And he certainly didn’t plan to garner worldwide attention.
Instead, one sunny afternoon in May 2019, the then-community college student thought, “Why don’t I go on a hike today?” McGregor, a climate activist, figured he might as well make the earth a little cleaner along the way.
Over time, his hiking habit transformed into a mission to eliminate all trash from the 198-acre park. Once the pandemic hit, that charge evolved into a daily social distancing ritual. McGregor’s efforts have garnered him national headlines, more than 25,000 Twitter followers and even a shoutout from Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thurnburg. McGregor now calls himself a Spartan — and he’s brought his passion to Silicon Valley.
Whether he is exploring spots close to San José State University like Alum Park, or hiking through the Santa Cruz Mountains, McGregor isn’t slowing down on picking up trash.
“People ask me when I am going to stop doing these cleanups,” McGregor shares. “It’s something I do every day, like brushing my teeth or eating or shaving.
“On top of cleaning up, I get to exercise every day, get fresh air, talk to people on trails and meet strangers. I get to explore local ecology and topography. There’s not a single reason I’ve come up with why I should stop — other than the fact that hiking in the sun is probably not the best thing for my skin.”
“I think a lot of our students — in our program, our college and across campus — can be motivated by the example he sets. Namely that, although the challenges we face seem enormous, all of us can do a little something to help make the world a better place.”
— Alison Bridger
A climate science major at SJSU, McGregor wants to continue making a difference in addressing climate change — perhaps through research, teaching or even politics.
In 2014, he remembers watching “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” with Neil deGrasse Tyson, which sparked his curiosity in climate change. He started to look up climate data for his area.
Pasadena, McGregor’s home within LA County, has “one of the oldest and most reliable weather stations in California,” he points out.
So he created charts to get a holistic look at how climate change was affecting his hometown.
“I was looking at this data, and I realized, wow, Pasadena’s climate is totally different from what it used to be,” he says. “San José has Pasadena’s climate from 115 years ago. Moving up here is like moving back in time to what Pasadena’s climate used to be.”
That understanding — that his home is slowly heating up year by year — motivates him to take better care of the planet by picking up trash.
McGregor on the hunt for trash at San José's Alum Rock Park. Photos: Jim Gensheimer.
McGregor takes only "a bucket, gloves and a first aid kit" when he ventures outside for his daily track pickups.
As of August 2022, McGregor has picked up trash across California for more than 1,000 consecutive days. He's not done yet. Photo: Jim Gensheimer.
His craziest find so far?
“Once on the side of a trail,” McGregor recalls, “I spotted a little metal thing sticking out of the ground. I pulled it out; it was an aluminum can and it looked old.”
After he pulled it out, he saw a plastic fork underneath it. Eventually, he unearthed what amounted to a huge pile and saw that some of the cans in the heap had expiration dates.
“For some reason, someone in 1986 thought it’d be a good idea to bury all of their trash on the side of the trail.”
As might be expected, McGregor’s mission can be a dichotomy of fulfillment and discouragement. He admits to some resentment toward litterbugs. In fact, he felt so disheartened at the beginning of his efforts that it kept him from going out some days. Now, he’s more at peace with it.
On the flip side, accumulating thousands of Twitter followers has allowed him to make an impact across the globe. Every day, he posts a video of his daily trash haul.
“People will message me saying, ‘Hey, we saw what you did on Twitter, and it inspired us to clean up the mouth of this river here in Sydney, Australia,’” he says. “Or maybe it’s a park in Norway or a popular square in New Delhi. It’s really cool to see that what I’m doing in my parks at home is encouraging to others.”
Alison Bridger, chair of the Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, who taught McGregor in one of her meteorology courses, sees the impact his work can have on those around him.
“His work in cleaning area parks is inspiring; I’ve never known a student to have done so much at such a young age,” she notes. “I think a lot of our students — in our program, our college and across campus — can be motivated by the example he sets. Namely that, although the challenges we face seem enormous, all of us can do a little something to help make the world a better place.”
A Little Goes a Long Way, Every Single Day
When it comes to daily cleanups, Edgar McGregor says to keep things simple. No major organization or buying trash bags or pickers in bulk required.
“All I have on me is a bucket, gloves and a first aid kit, and that’s it,” he adds, though he notes that you might want to bring water, depending on the hike and weather conditions.
One day, he was driving home to LA from SJSU at the end of the semester, and he still hadn’t squeezed a trash pickup into his busy day: “I pulled over at a turnoff in Santa Barbara County, filled my bucket in three minutes, and that was that.”
He stresses that efforts don’t have to be huge, just consistent: “I hope the simplicity convinces other people to do it.”
McGregor has unearthed decades-old trash during his hikes across California since 2019.