Litterati: Can a digital landfill rid the world of litter?

Can picking up litter be fun?

A resounding yes comes from the community of Litterati, an app that asks users to identify, photograph and geotag individual pieces of trash before disposing of them.

It's a simple enough idea: crowdsourcing data that could help stop litter from being created in the first place.

So far, Litterati has cataloged over 750,000 pieces of litter from 114 countries, with hundreds being added every day.

"It's a small sample, but it's already proving effective," says Jeff Kirschner, who started it all with a photo of a cigarette butt.

Born on Instagram

The idea of Litterati came to Oakland entrepreneur Kirschner while he was hiking with his daughter. She saw a plastic tub of kitty litter that had been dumped in the water and noted that it shouldn't have been there.

"It was an innocent but insightful comment and it got me thinking," says Kirschner.

"It reminded me of when I was a kid at summer camp, and before visiting day everybody would go pick up five pieces of litter -- it didn't take long to clean up the whole camp."

Kirschner started toying with ideas on how to apply that model to the entire planet, and one day posted a photo of a cigarette butt he found in the street on Instagram.

"Pretty soon I noticed I had 50 photos of litter on my phone and I had picked up each and every piece I had shot. I was keeping a record of the positive impact I was having on the planet," he says.

That was the start of Litterati, which launched in 2012 as an Instagram hashtag.

Instagram made photos of litter "artistic and approachable," but Litterati has since become its own entity, having launched an iOS app in 2016 and, more recently, an Android version: "Instagram isn't designed for creating a litter free world," explains Kirschner, "We wanted to design a user experience more aligned with our objective, and have more control over the data we were capturing and what we could do with it."

The app allows users to take photos of litter and then select the most appropriate hashtag for each one, before uploading them along with the exact GPS coordinates of each find.

A global interactive map showing every piece of litter that's ever been uploaded in its original location is currently only available at the Litterati website, and not yet through the app itself.

How can this data help?

A list of the most tagged types of trash shows that plastic is by far the most popular, with cigarettes, paper, cans and bottlecaps rounding up the top five spots.

The most active countries are the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

The available data is still limited and patchy, but knowing precisely what type of trash can be found in which cities -- or even neighborhoods -- can be a boon to analyze or even predict trends: "We are beginning to build a global database of litter. It's a big change: until now the only data we had about litter was weight, but now we can start to understand how factors like holidays or the weather affect littering," says Kirschner.

In a TED talk, Kirschner shows how the data can be used effectively.

In one example, a group of 5th graders picked over 1,2000 pieces of litter in their schoolyard, noticing that the most common type of litter was the plastic straw wrappers from their own cafeteria, which led to the school eliminating the straws at the request of the students.

In another, it emerges how a block in downtown Oakland was littered almost exclusively with sauce packets from a nearby fast food restaurant, most of which were unopened. Armed with this knowledge, the restaurant could decide to only give out the sauce upon request, or install in-store dispensers, Kirschner argues.

"There's an opportunity to connect brands with the community and with the data, helping cities get cleaner," he says.

Kirschner says he is working with brands that are frequently found in litter, brands that have to do with cleaning, and brands who believe in the message Litterati is sending.

A healthy competition

Litterati keeps track of how many pieces of litter the user has uploaded, and rewards users with special messages once they reach specific landmarks.

This sparks some "healthy competition", Kirschner says, that he believes can help motivate users, along with information about the impact the data has in the real world.

The app now has a user base of around 20,000 -- with one user int he Netherlands having collected over 35,000 pieces of litter.