Impact Tech Insights

Feb 18, 2021 12:15:14 PM
Bob Snow

A picture paints a thousand hopes


The amazing grassroots power of Litterati, the global community committed to creating a litter-free world.

“It’s really simple. I’m driven to leave this place better than I found it,” says Jeff Kirschner. 

Jeff started Litterati because of something one of his young children said to him. One day, while hiking in the woods, she spotted a plastic container of cat litter in the creek, and said, “Daddy, that doesn't go there!”


It made him think of his childhood summer camp, when the director asked all the kids to pick up five pieces of litter each before their parents visited. Then, he thought, “Why not apply that crowdsourced cleanup model to the entire planet?”


The Litterati app has since grown to be used in 165 countries around the world with more than 200,000 participants, with more joining every day.


The app couldn’t be simpler to use. People find a piece of litter, take a picture of it with their smartphone, then pick it up and throw it out. A geotag shows where the litter was, a timestamp shows when the litter was picked up, and computer vision models are used to analyze each photograph, identifying the objects, materials, and brands.


When plotted on a map, highly detailed data visualizations can be created. In addition, every picture tells a story about what the litter is, and where it comes from – a popular fast-food chain, for example, or a certain brand of soft drink, or a particular brand of cigarettes.


And it can have a very powerful, positive and immediate impact on a community.


San Francisco is one example. They wanted to know how much litter in the city was cigarettes, so they could create a tax. They had a couple of people walk around and manually record the information, which led to a 20-cent tax on every package of cigarettes sold. But the city was sued by the tobacco companies, who said that the manual collection of information couldn’t be validated.


The city then contacted Litterati, and within four days, 5,000 pieces of cigarette litter were photographed, picked up, and logged. This data was then used to defend and actually double the tax, which now generates four million dollars a year for the city’s cleanup program.


The Litterati community is part of a growing worldwide movement. Here’s why.


The global groundswell of support for Litterati comes from a confluence of three universal trends. The first is that cities everywhere have set their sights on zero waste targets. Waste is a massive global issue, and cities have said, ‘enough’. The second is that corporations are being held accountable for the materials they produce, and as a result, they’re setting very ambitious corporate responsibility goals. Finally – and perhaps most influential – individual consumers are demanding change, and they’re driven by the scientific facts and evidence-based data.


The true power of Litterati comes from the people who use it. “Everyone can be part of the solution,” says Jeff. “Using the app, they’ve discovered that individually they can each make a difference, but together they create an impact.”


In the Netherlands, for example, the government has now added cans to their deposit system as a direct result of the Litterati community’s involvement. And a group of fifth graders in the United States used the app to discover that of the 1,247 pieces of litter they picked up on their playground one day, most were straw wrappers from their own cafeteria. After asking their principal why straws were needed at all, the school stopped buying them.


“That’s what excites us at Litterati,” says Jeff. “We love the idea of empowering people with a simple but sophisticated tool that enables them to be part of the solution. We’re empowering people to create a litter-free world.”

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