Litterati: an app for cleaning up the planet
by Tanya Kirnishni, Editor, Canadian Geographic Education
17 April 2017
If you live in a city, there is a good chance that you pass by litter every day. Jeff Kirschner, a writer and entrepreneur from San Francisco, was walking in the woods with his two kids when his daughter spotted a plastic tub of cat litter lying in a creek. She pointed it out to her dad and said, “Daddy, that doesn’t go there.”
This was an eye-opening moment, says Kirschner. He lives in an area that considers itself to be environmentally progressive and said that this incident really got him thinking about litter. Kirschner was reminded of when he was a kid and used to go to summer camp.
“Our camp director would say — quick, before your parents come in, everybody pick up five pieces of litter. And you had a couple hundred kids, each picking up a few pieces. Within a few minutes, we had a much cleaner camp,” says Kirschner. “So why not apply that crowd-sourced clean up model to the entire planet?”
This was the inspiration for starting Litterati, a mobile app that encourages people to photograph litter, then throw it out or recycle it. Initially, Kirschner was taking photos of litter and posting them to his Instagram account. After a few days, he had fifty photos on his phone, and realizing that he was effectively keeping a record of the positive impact he was having, Kirschner started telling people about it. As more and more people participated, Kirschner decided to bring his community together around an app, at that’s how Litterati was born.
“I think climate change is one of those things that people believe it’s a problem, but don’t know exactly know what they can do to help solve it.”
One way that people often choose to fight climate change is by using public transportation instead of driving. However, the effects of those actions aren’t immediately apparent or tangible. With Litterati, a person picks up a hundred things and the area in front of them, which was visually tarnished, is now spotless.
“We think that crowdsourcing it is one of the more efficient ways to do this. We’ve clearly struck a chord with people across the world who care deeply about this problem.”
As of today, more than 340,000 pieces of litter have been collected by a community of people from over 100 countries. The way the app works is simple — you find a piece of litter, you photograph it, you tag what it is, and you throw it out or recycle.
The other data, meaning a geotag and a time stamp, are all captured automatically. Your profile keeps track of how many pieces you’ve picked up. You’re able to upload multiple images at any given time and all that data is instantly shared with the rest of the Litterati community database.
Through the process of collecting litter, people are also collecting data — including what are the most common brands found on the ground, what are the material types — which can then be put to further use.
“Our reason for being, why we exist, is to create a litter-free world. This is a global pandemic that impacts the economy, affects the environment, degrades communities, kills wildlife and poisons the food system. We solve today’s problems with data and yet strangely this is one massive problem that has virtually none.”
Kirschner points to a case in which a group of fifth graders used Litterati to pick up 1,247 pieces of litter from their school yard. Through the data, they learned that the most common type of litter was plastic straw wrappers from their own cafeteria. They then went to their principal and got the school to stop buying them.
“That’s an example of how technology gave them data that led to an insight, which drove an action that’s going to keep their schoolyard much cleaner for years to come,” says Kirschner. “One of the good things about Litterati is that we’re giving people a tool that allows them to immediately become a part of the solution.”