Preserving the Environment

Litterati: Tapping the Power of Instagram for a Litter-Free World

June 10, 2014
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Litterati: Tapping the Power of Instagram for a Litter-Free World
A selection of images from a recent San Francisco exhibition called “Litterati: Using Technology to Clean the Planet.” Clockwise from top: @mattcolvin, @litterati, @benvrs, @SmartCityWien, @jeffkirschner, @mrfunktastik courtesy of Litterati
A new online community maps out the what, when and where of trash in an effort to get rid of it for good.

On a routine hike with his two kids through California’s hilly and heavily wooded Oakland Hills, Jeff Kirschner found his picturesque view suddenly interrupted. Gazing down into the winding Sausal Creek, he spotted an empty cat-litter tub sittingon the banks. Kirschner went through the usual string of emotions he experienced when he saw litter — disbelief, frustration, anger — before calling it a day with a silent harumph.

His 4-year-old daughter, Tali, however, voiced Kirschner’s thoughts out loud — and a little more succinctly:

“Daddy, that doesn’t go there,” she said.

It’s an anecdote Kirschner, 41, likes to tell often, and for good reason. Looking back on that hike almost two years later, he considers Tali’s matter-of-fact statement an “aha” moment. “We have cats at home, so I think she was just commenting on the fact that this tub was out of place, not necessarily that it was trash or even litter,” he says. “But I realized she was absolutely right. It didn’t belong there — no litter does — and I wanted to do something about that.”

In fall 2012, Kirschner founded Litterati, a website and online community that aims to create a litter-free world by crowdsourcing trash cleanup. The idea is simple: After identifying a piece of litter, users photograph it with Instagram, adding the hashtag “#litterati.” Then, they throw away or recycle the item.

To date, Kirschner himself has recorded nearly 5,000 pieces of litter on the Litterati Instagram account, while users from 50 countries have contributed some 55,000 photos that live in a “Digital Landfill” on the organization’s site. Kirschner originally decided to use the photo-sharing app Instagram because of its convenience — it’s free to download and easy to use, with a number of photo filter options that make litter appear almost art-like.

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Shortly after starting his Litterati account, Kirschner uncovered a much more significant benefit to the social media platform: location tagging, which allowed him to see not only what trash was being picked up, but also when and where cleanup was happening. “The hashtag created a record of the impact we were making,” says Kirschner, who had stints in advertising, screenwriting and tech startups before creating Litterati, which is now his full-time job. “The geo-tagged pictures came with dates and locations, and I was suddenly able to see patterns of where litter was sitting and what kind of litter was there. It has helped us figure out which neighborhoods might need more trash cans or recycling bins, and that’s something I didn’t predict when I started.”

Like the proliferation of litter itself, there’s no shortage of organizations trying to get rid of it, including high-profile groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Keep America Beautiful. Kirschner has nothing but praise for these like-minded efforts, but he sees Litterati filling a void in the data his organization provides on recycled and removed trash — information that’s critical, in his opinion, in creating long-term solutions and policies on waste removal.

Kirschner’s group is also filling a void for those seeking a global network of eco-minded citizens. “Litterati creates a sense of community — people in Brussels are picking up trash and posting pictures of it while I’m doing the same thing here in San Francisco,” says Jon Braslaw, assistant group manager at Recology, a San Francisco company that reduces waste by trying to find new, sustainable uses for trash that typically sits in landfills. Earlier this year, Recology partnered with Litterati to stage an art exhibition in San Francisco called “Litterati: Using Technology to Clean the Planet,” which featured select images from the Digital Landfill. “We’re a society of consumers, so being able to demonstrate the value in the materials we consume — and how they can be recycled and reused — is important,” Braslaw says. “The show was a tool to help teach people about being conscious of what they throw away, and it gave Jeff physical pieces of artwork that he could use to continue to tell Litterati’s story.”

Kirschner has also teamed up with corporate brands in an effort to raise awareness about waste reduction. A Whole Foods store in Oakland, Calif., gave away free cups of coffee to anyone who had posted a #Litterati-tagged Instagram photo, and Chipotle donated a year of free burritos as a prize to the winners of a Litterati photo contest sponsored by the California Coastal Commission. In a fitting tribute, the winning photos showed young children holding up pieces of litter they’d thrown away.

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This year Litterati even made its way to schools such as Fremont Open Plan, an alternative education program in nearby Modesto City, Calif., that mixes students of different grades in one classroom. Levi Sello, a teacher at the school, uses Litterati’s database in class to help his fourth- through sixth-grade students document the waste in their own school and community using iPads borrowed from a local aquarium. The kids became so passionate about the project that they even lobbied their school to put recycling containers in the cafeteria, after realizing plastic wrap around forks and spoons was the most common waste item found on site. They’re now asking school administrators to replace the cafeteria’s wasteful Styrofoam plates with a greener alternative.

“Being able to go out and see the trash in their own space has really helped them understand waste in a way that makes sense for their age,” Sello says. Students have started using Litterati at home, too, using their parents’ phones to make Instagram accounts of their own. Sello’s favorite story: The mother of one of his students told him that her child was too busy picking up trash to enjoy the beach on a recent family vacation. “That showed to me that this project with Litterati is really making a lasting impression on them,” he says.

The school’s use of Litterati is particularly meaningful to Kirschner, whose own daughter inspired the site, and for whom he’d like to leave a cleaner, more sustainable world. “I think that’s the wish of any parent — to leave this world in a better place for their kids,” he says.

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