March Forward #2: Discarded Junk Becomes Art

“Litter: it’s blending into the background of our lives. But what if we brought it to the forefront?” – Jeff Kirschner

It’s not just during camping season that we savor the delight of pristine, unspoiled nature.  Whether we’re pitching a tent, roasting dinner, getting our daily step-count in good weather, or just enjoying the view outside the window, we all cringe at the litter that turns landscapes into dumping grounds. On a recent walk in her neighborhood, this blogger found soup and soda cans, plastic cups, chewed straws, crumpled coupons, cigarette butts, and more. And these aren’t just eyesores; they can

What if a community existed to make picking up litter not only worthwhile and productive; but also fun, engaging, and knit into a larger, powerful effort that spanned the globe?

Enter the website Litterati  (literati.org)– a global community that is crowdsourcing cleaning efforts. On the website, users take photos of the litter they pick up—and go on to identify, tag, and even map trends in a region’s “litter profile.”

Litterati’s founder, Jeff Kirschner, drew inspiration for the site when he recalled his days at sleepaway camp. On the morning of visiting day, the director would direct each camper to pick up five pieces of trash. It didn’t take long for the camp to look a whole lot cleaner. Kirschner decided to apply that “crowdsourced cleanup model” to the entire planet. To that end, he took a picture of a cigarette butt. Each time he saw a new piece of litter, he recorded each piece—and picked it up. At the end of just a few days, he had 50 photos of trash he had disposed of. The idea caught on, and soon a photo reached him from a user in China. The users, scattered as they might have been, were creating a community. And by geo-tagging and time-stamping each photo, they helped Kirschner build a Google map to plot points.

This data quickly proved invaluable. When San Francisco wanted to collect information on smoking habits to determine tax rates, they turned to Litterati after pencils and clipboards failed them and provoked outrage by Big Tobacco.

Kirschner says every city in the world has a “unique litter fingerprint” – from coffee cups to soda cans to plastic bottles. In Oakland, most of the litter in a blighted area stemmed from a well-known taco brand’s hot sauce packets. So to cut to the heart of the problem, the brand could give out hot sauce only upon request, or install bulk dispensers. Recently, in Oakland’s hills, a user found a Coke can with a vintage design. It had been perfectly preserved since 1966, and points up questions about minimal or more eco-friendly packaging.

If you’re counting the days till camping season, try geo-tagging your litter to observe your positive impact on the planet in real-time!

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