The ‘garbage guy’ walks 12 miles a day around D.C. picking up trash

March 9, 2021
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Most people walk by trash they pass on streets and sidewalks. Some people don’t even notice it. Then there’s Billy Adams. He not only sees it, he picks it up — all of it.

Since the spring, the 54-year-old Montgomery County man has spent his daily walks into the District collecting garbage around the city, usually filling at least two trash bags with waste.

“It’s just something I do,” he said. “It’s become part of my routine.”

He leaves his home, which is just over the D.C. line, about 8:30 a.m., garbage bag in hand, ready for a brisk 12-mile traverse around the city. Typically, he walks down Massachusetts Avenue, then to 14th Street, continually squatting to collect the trash he spots along the way.

Dressed in activewear and tracking his walk on a sports watch, Adams scoops up everything in sight, from plastic water bottles to food wrappers, beer cans and disposable face masks. Lots of masks.

“I’ll pick up pretty much anything,” Adams said. He doesn’t wear plastic gloves, he noted, but he washes his hands whenever he stops along the way.

Eventually, he turns toward home, usually going from Q Street over to Georgetown, where he drops off his first bag full of garbage in a public trash can. Then he stops at a Starbucks on M Street for a Grande Americano — and requests a fresh garbage bag. He always leaves a $1 tip.

Starbucks employees said they’ve come to know Adams as the “garbage guy.” They often have a bag ready for him when he visits the store.

“The first time he came I was confused,” said Ahmed Oukchir, the store manager at the M Street Starbucks. “I thought: ‘Why is he asking for trash bags every day? What’s going on with this guy?’ ”

Despite being baffled by the request, Oukchir graciously would give Adams a fresh bag upon each visit. Soon, he realized what the bag was for.

Adams shows up at the Starbucks location most days of the week, and “sometimes, he will come twice a day,” Oukchir said.

“He is always cleaning parks, roads and side streets,” he said, adding that because of Adams, Oukchir himself is now more conscious of litter around the city. “Billy has inspired me big time. When everybody does their part, the world will change.”

That’s certainly Adams’s motto. While his daily trash pickups are mostly a one-man mission, “I would love to see more people do it,” he said.

Onlookers and friends have taken note of Adams’s garbage hauling habit, including his fitness trainer, Jamie Bredbenner.

“In rain, snow, sleet or hail, he is always picking up garbage,” said Bredbenner, who works at Bodysmith Gym. “I so admire it. I do it in my own neighborhood while walking my dog.”

Along Adams’s walk from his home to the gym for a training session, he also collects trash. And when he’s about to leave the gym, “he’ll say, ‘Do you have a trash bag? I like to pick up trash on the way back,’ ” said India Taylor, who works at the gym’s front desk.

Adams began regularly picking up garbage in June, but his daily walks became a ritual more than a decade ago as part of a rigorous exercise routine.

“I also swim and lift weights four times a week,” he said. “This thing happened to me in 2011, and it changed my life. I realized I needed to be healthier, and walking is just one piece of it.”

Adams was on vacation in Hawaii with his wife and three children when his family decided to go zip-lining.

“They have to weigh you, and I remember these two women behind the counter looking at each other, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, have I gotten that big?’ ” he said.

Adams, an executive at a software company, said his previous job — which he left in 2018 — spurred an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I was working on a case for nine months and didn’t have a day off,” he said. “I didn’t go home on the weekends and slept at the office. I gained a whole bunch of weight.”

“As soon as we got back from Hawaii, I decided I was going to start walking to work,” Adams said, adding that his former office was about five miles from his house. “Then it became part of my daily routine.”

When the pandemic hit, he vowed to continue walking, even though he was working from home and had nowhere to go. Adams’s workday typically starts around noon, since his company is based in Australia, giving him flexibility to exercise in the morning. He takes any early work phone calls on foot, while exploring new areas around the city.

That’s when he took note of all the trash, which “really started bothering me,” said Adams, who grew up in Bethesda.

So, he grabbed a bag and started gathering garbage. His new ritual, he learned, was immensely satisfying.

“The trash is just out of place; it doesn’t belong there. Finishing my projects is definitely rewarding,” Adams said, explaining that he often changes his walking paths, which he refers to as his “projects,” to ensure he covers as many areas around the District as possible. “When you see it beforehand, then you walk by it after and it’s all clean, that’s a good feeling.”

“You start picking up on patterns as you do this,” Adams explained. He now associates different areas with specific types of trash. For instance, the Capital Crescent Trail has become a popular exercise site during the pandemic, he explained, so, “you’ll always find strawberry banana GU Energy packets and Nature Valley granola bar wrappers there.”

Although Adams’s customary cleanup — which typically takes him about three hours — might be unusual, exercising while picking up trash is actually a trend of sorts. There’s a popular Swedish fitness craze that involves collecting trash, called “plogging,” a mix of jogging and “plocka upp” — Swedish for pick up. In recent years, plogging groups have popped up around the world, including in the D.C. area.

Adams isn’t seeking to start a plogging group, he said, but he does encourage friends and family to join him on trash walks, including his sister, Caroline Miller, who has accompanied him on several occasions with her husband.

“People know who he is. They wave at him, they honk at him,” Miller, 59, said. “But he is determined to do it whether people join and support him or not. I’m amazed by his focus and his grit.”

According to Miller, the daily trash hauls exemplify her brother’s nature.

“Billy is somebody who likes to do the right thing. He is very moral, and if he sees trash on the ground, he can’t just walk past it,” she said.

Upon joining her brother on walks, Miller notices him “constantly scanning the environment,” she said. “Where my husband and I saw a walking path, Billy saw trash.”

“Now when I walk, I look for trash. It has a contagious impact on you, and anybody who went on one walk with Billy would feel the same way,” Miller added.

For Adams, he hopes his trash pickups motivate others to litter less and pick up more.

“I hope people see me and go, ‘Hey, maybe next time I walk around I’ll bring a trash bag and do that, too,’ ” he said. “The simple act of picking up trash makes a huge difference.”

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