September 21 marked World Cleanup Day, which brought together activists from around the world to reduce waste, one piece of trash at a time. Millions of citizens — mothers with babies, people with their dogs, a 101-year-old man — united around a cause that everyone can connect with. The success of World Cleanup Day begets the question: can we have that kind of global impact on a daily basis?
For platforms like Litterati, the answer is a resounding yes. Litterati is an app that encourages people to pick up and document trash on their smartphones. Founder and CEO Jeff Kirschner, reflecting upon his days at summer camp, was inspired by memories of the counselors instructing campers to pick up five pieces of trash before visiting day.
“You get a couple hundred kids, each picking up a few pieces and it doesn’t take long before you have a spotless camp. And I thought, why not apply that crowdsourced model to the entire planet,” Kirschner has said.
In his TED Talk, Kirschner explained how he set out to make trash-collecting artistic and approachable.
To use Litterati, one photographs a piece of trash, tag it (by object, material, brand), then disposes of it accordingly. Simple enough. Contributors can also participate in a crowd-sourced challenge or create their own challenge. The application is about getting rid of trash that already exists — and also to stopping it from being created in the first place.
The platform collects data on who picked up what, where, and when.
Documentation is a crucial piece of the system. Using Litterati, fifth graders in Modesto, California, picked up 1,247 pieces of trash, most of it consisting of plastic straw wrappers. They approached their school’s administration, urging for a simple, but impactful, change to the cafeteria. In San Francisco, a thorough documentation of litter across 32 areas found that cigarettes were everywhere. A doubling of the cigarette tax followed suit.
Data, it turns out, can be a vital tool for reducing waste and implementing structural change.
OPEN LITTER MAP
Irish entrepreneur Séan Lynch combined his interest in citizen science and open data to make a difference with Open Litter Map.
“We hear about litter in the deepest parts of the ocean and on these once beautiful remote islands but, really, if you want to experience plastic pollution all you have to do is walk outside,” Lynch has said.
Open Litter Map prioritizes open data, allowing the general public to download its numbers for any use, from city cleanup to research. Anyone can join. Using geotagging, users can document anything from a single straw to an entire street-worth of trash. In doing so, participants are creating a massive global database — a crowdsourced trash audit — that can influence business and policymaking.
“To change people’s perception and behavior, maps and data can become the most powerful tools in our arsenal as geospatial data transcends language.”
Open Litter Map also hosts a Litter World Cup, encouraging users around the world to pick up and tag the most trash. In first place, as of this writing, @LitterMapper leads the pack with 19,531 tags. Users are compensated with littercoin.
Trashbot, something of a waterborne Roomba, roams Chicago’s waterways collecting trash — and can be operated by users around the world. People take turns virtually picking up the river’s litter. The level of online engagement and ability for the public to perform trash “audits” remotely hopefully increases understanding of the impact runaway garbage has on our waterways.
LILLY’S PLASTIC PICKUP
Leveraging social media’s power, individuals like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen taking the world by storm with her weekly climate strikes, and activists as young as Lilly of Lilly’s Plastic Pickup, are raising awareness across the globe. The day Lilly began, she picked up 91 pieces of trash. Since then, she’s been documenting her finds and spearheading #LillysGlobalCleanUpDay.
As the September 20 global Climate Strike showed, there’s nothing quite like showing up as a group and speaking up. What apps like Litterati, Open Litter Map and grassroots movements like Lilly’s Plastic Pickup offer is the opportunity for individuals to take action daily as part of a larger global movement. As Kirschner put it, an individual can make a difference, but a community makes an impact. Today, that community is a global one, building towards change every day—and recording the progress.