Litter on the Ground? There's an App for That!

The Litterati app collects data about litter to improve policy and packaging design.

picking up litter

Elitsa Deykova / Getty Images

Litterati is the name of a company that's trying to make the world a cleaner place – and doing a remarkably fine job of it. It has created an app that people can use to upload information about litter they collect outside, such as its appearance, material, location, and brand. Shared online, this information contributes to building a global database of "litter maps," which can influence policy and packaging design.

Jeff Kirschner is the founder and CEO of Litterati. He came up with the idea while walking in a northern California forest with his then-four-year-old daughter, who noticed a plastic kitty litter container in a creek. Despite being young, she expressed distress at the container being somewhere that it wasn't supposed to be. This awareness stays with us as adults, though there is a tendency to feel daunted by it. The litter problem is so huge: what's an individual person supposed to do?

That's where Kirschner thinks an app can help. As he told Treehugger, "Society’s failure to solve the litter epidemic has not been from a lack of trying. There have been public service announcements, neighborhood litter walks, and coastal cleanups." But he believes two components are missing from the discussion – community and data – and if these are added in, we can start making a real dent in the problem.

Uploading pictures to an app shows users that they're not the only ones picking up litter from public places and that others are invested in cleaning the planet, too. And the data accumulates rapidly, telling a story that helps people understand who picked up what, where, and when. Kirschner said,

"We’ve transformed the painstaking method of manual collection into an AI-powered platform. And with an open model. Our Global Litter Database now contains over 8 million pieces, growing at about 20,000 per day. This information includes the objects, materials, brands, and their location." 

In a short TED talk (see below), Kirschner describes these data-driven maps as being like a fingerprint. "Every city has a litter fingerprint. That fingerprint provides both the source of the problem and the path to the solution." There are several examples of how Litterati's data has already provided a path to a solution. 

In San Francisco, the Litterati app was able to identify and map more than 5,000 pieces of trash in order to determine how much was generated by cigarettes specifically. Using this information the city successfully challenged a lawsuit by tobacco companies and doubled an existing cigarette sales tax, generating US$4 million in annual revenue. In the Netherlands, Litterati's data helped push Dutch brand Anta Flu to repackage its hard candies in waxed paper, rather than non-recyclable plastic. 

By joining forces with others using the same platform, individuals are able to take their anti-litter activism to another level. The power of combined data leads to more Extended Producer Responsibility, which is precisely what we want and advocate for here on Treehugger – when producers are forced to be responsible for dealing with their own products once consumers no longer find them useful and are incentivized to create more environmentally friendly packaging as a result of that new responsibility.

Litterati takes a refreshingly non-judgmental approach. It exudes a positive we-can-do-it attitude, reflected in Kirschner's words to Treehugger: 

"Our goal isn’t to shame. It’s to provide transparency to the problem and empower people to be part of the solution. We provide access to data and share insights with cities, citizens and corporations, empowering us all to identify the root cause of the problem, and make informed decisions of how to clean the planet."

We need more companies like this. If you want to add your voice to the Litterati community, you can download the app from the App Store or get it on Google Play.

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