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I love Independence Day. I don’t eat hot dogs, nor do I care that much for fireworks.

I celebrate July 4th by reading and writing about influential Americans and American history. I’ll put this one in context with some memories of living abroad.

National pride and garbage

One of my most vivid memories of China was of a Chinese man at the Great Wall. He was eating a bag of chips. When he finished them, he simply dropped the plastic bag.

The wind took it over the rampart out into China. I couldn’t believe his carelessness.

Later in my year there, a story by a Chinese person in an English-language newspaper recounted something similar. He saw a Korean busload of tourists arrive at the Great Wall. When the door opened, the Korean tourists poured out and all started picking up trash at the tourist site.

He wrote that he felt shame that foreign tourists saw and satisfied the demand to clean his country. I didn’t think of garbage and cleanliness as having a patriotic or nationalistic component, but he revealed one.

Home, garbage, and cleaning it up

That was 2012. I didn’t think much of it until fall 2014, when I noticed most of my landfill garbage came from food. Most places I visit in the U.S., even far from cities, are littered with trash, as if invisible greenhouse gases and mercury-laden fish weren’t enough.

I don’t like that I was born into a polluted world and I prefer to avoid polluting it further. Ever the entrepreneur, I took initiative and challenged myself to go one week without buying any food with any packaging–no bags, boxes, rubber bands, stickers, cans, etc.

I didn’t think I could make it when I started–in fact, I thought about it for six months before acting. Too much analysis and planning. But act I did, and want two-and-a-half weeks packaging-free before buying my first packaged food again (a mesh bag of onions, which, looking back, I could have avoided by buying loose onions).

In the two years since, I haven’t kept to zero, but close. One month ago, on June 4, I emptied my landfill garbage for the first time in six months (here’s the video), eating the most delicious, convenient, inexpensive diet in my life, mostly vegetables and fruit from local farms, plus nuts and dried legumes from a nearby bulk foods store.

I’ve also started a new self-imposed daily challenging healthy activity (sidcha) this spring to pick up at least one piece of trash per day and put it into a trash or recycling can. It doesn’t reduce the total amount of trash but at least collects it.

Why would I do something that won’t appreciably clean the world but does make my hands dirty for no personal benefit? Am I tilting at windmills?

I could talk about the guy on the Great Wall of China, his garbage, and how I don’t want my home to suffer a similar despoiling, but what can I do against 8 million other New Yorkers?

I could talk about the Korean busload of tourists and how I don’t want foreigners to shame my country. The garbage we litter our streets with gives them ample opportunity, but, again, I’m not making much of a dent.

Passing on the cleanliness habit

I’d rather illustrate it with the words of an NYU student who followed my lead and amplified it. He took my leadership class and followed the development of my Leadership and the Environment keynote talk (a work-in-progress).

He acted on two things:

  • My passion, yes passion, for picking up a piece of garbage per day, and
  • My talk’s call to audience members to challenge themselves to reduce their pollution or greenhouse gas emissions for some time to experience it

led him to challenge himself, following in my footsteps.

I should note, the goal of the second point is not to solve the world’s problems or anything external, but to give an active experience and to feel the emotional results of living by one’s values. I only ask people to do it who value not polluting.

I should also note a thrust of my Leadership and the Environment keynote is that although I support science, education, innovation, and the approaches to reducing pollution, resource depletion, overpopulation, global warming, and our other environmental problems, I believe we need leadership in the style of Martin Luther King Junior, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Mohandas Gandhi, and so on.

I am glad that Elon Musk, the IPCC, Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore, and others are doing what they’re doing, but CO2 levels continue to rise and uninhabited remote Pacific Islands continue to to be covered with garbage. In other words, their results aren’t enough.

We know what to do. We lack leadership to lead those who want to leave the world cleaner than they found it to do so, and not feel alone, as if their contribution meant nothing.

Regarding individuals like you and me, who can’t directly influence governments and large institutions, I believe step 1 is to act, and to experience how living by your values improves your life, however much it looks like deprivation or sacrifice first.

My avoiding food packaging, for example, has led my diet to become my most delicious, convenient, and inexpensive ever, all while losing fat and gaining muscle. I also eat more volume of food than ever. It led me to want to change more to pollute less. People who taste my food and see my videos of polluting less tell me they feel inspired and act on that inspiration.

American role models

Besides leadership in the style of great Americans like King, I consider great Americans like Henry Thoreau, Ralph Emerson, and Rachel Carson role models.

As you can tell by my former student’s name, his ancestors didn’t come on the Mayflower or sign the Declaration of Independence. Jay Kumar works hard at NYU’s engineering school.

I consider his challenge, the discipline he applied himself with, and the reflection and introspection he took from it a great act of making this country great. Though he is one person, I hope he inspires you to do something that requires negligible resources yet changes your perspective so much.

His sidcha

Jay chose to pick up 10 pieces of trash per day for the month of June and put them in trash or recycling cans. The goal wasn’t to clean up the planet at once, but to challenge himself and see what change came of it.

On June 30th, I asked his results. I hope you find his response as inspirational as I did:

Hi Josh,

Today is the last day of my challenge, and I didn’t think I’d feel this way before I started, but I feel “weird” if I walk by a piece of trash and don’t pick it up now.

That’s not to say I pick up every single piece of trash I see, but that now it feels natural to want to reduce the waste I produce or the waste I can try to produce. When I see other people walk by trash or drop cigarettes in the middle of the street, I can’t help but think that they’re marginalizing their agency and the impact they can make in their community by just implementing one mundane action.

The first few times I stopped in the middle of the street to pick up a piece of paper and a plastic food container, I felt that same “weirdness” as I feel now if I don’t pick up a piece of trash. But that quickly went away once I reminded myself that I was acting on my values.

Just yesterday, as I picked up a piece of paper napkin someone had dropped 10 feet from a garbage can, I mused over how I’ve heard people say they wish they witnessed live MLK’s deliverance of his “I Have a Dream” Speech, or how they would have denounced the Holocaust had they lived in Nazi-occupied Germany and been non-Jewish Germans.

But if people can’t act on their values when the stakes aren’t high, then how can they expect to act on them when the consequences of their inaction affect not only themselves, but an entire group of people?

This thought wasn’t an indictment of people as being hypocrites, but more so that people either don’t truly believe in the values they purport to have, or know them but don’t challenge themselves to act on them more consistently/broadly.

Since starting the challenge, I’ve started using my A/C less without consciously thinking about it. I’ve started cooking more frequently again since finals and reduced the meat I consume from the meals I make from ~1.5-2lbs a day to ~1lb a day, using legumes to supplement for the deficit.

I like the fact that this challenge was ‘just right’ in that it caused me to consider my own waste production instead of managing other’s waste.

I’m heavily inclined to try going a week without buying any food that comes packaged. I just found a bulk store 5 minutes from my apartment so have no reason to not try it.

Plus I think trying a challenge of this nature is the next step in my first challenge, particularly for testing what ultimately could become a whole lifestyle change or, at least something that changes core parts of my current lifestyle.

Best,

Jay

Are you inspired?

Such growth and insight from an apparently simple act, costing nothing, taking maybe a few minutes over the whole month. Look at the personal responsibility. The motivation to continue.

I’m sharing it with you, with his permission, in the hopes the act may catch on. Could you pick up one piece of trash per day? Or some comparable challenge?

People have adopted other challenges following my Leadership and the Environment talk–again, with the modest goal of personal growth, not trying to solve the world’s problems at once. They tell me they find the experience rewarding enough to continue it forever and take on more after. Examples include

  • Avoiding packaged food
  • Avoiding meat
  • Avoiding driving
  • Avoiding flying
  • Turning off all unused lights and appliances (with power strips so no phantom current)
  • Avoiding using air conditioning
  • Using sweaters to avoid using heat

Will you challenge yourself?

Will you challenge yourself like Jay? Are you ready to grow in ways you never expected?

What do you have to lose?

How about making your nation a little cleaner today, or even this whole month?

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.