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Sparking an Anti-Litter Revolution Through Data: Jeff Kirschner on PYP 452

Jeff Kirschner was on a walk with his kids when his young daughter pointed to a cat litter container littering a stream bed. “Daddy,” she told him, “That doesn't belong there.”

As sparks go, that one could easily have been extinguished before it lit anything else. But that's not what happened. Instead, Jeff began thinking about that container. How it got there. Where it might be going next. And what kind of world were his kids going to inherit, filling up ever more quickly with things that “don't belong there.”

Jeff began cataloging litter on his Instagram account, taking photos of trash on streets, sidewalks, and fields, and hashtagging them by type and material and brand. When other people followed his lead, he realized that he had the beginning of a movement.

Soon, the amount and quality of the data started sparking bigger ideas. The fact that each bit of litter was geotagged, time-stamped, and categorized meant that a computer could begin to spot trends, and create data sets that could inform policy initiatives to combat this form of pollution.

And so Litterati.org was born.

Now, Litterati is in 185 countries, provides an open data set, and is helping municipalities and large corporations design and implement programs to reduce litter and its heavy costs.

Why do we care about plastic containers, fast food clamshells, and cigarette butts on the ground, other than esthetics?

Let's start with the Benjamins. Philadelphia spends almost $50 million a year on street cleanup – all of it remedial, none of it preventive. Multiply that by cities all across the world and pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.

Next, the environmental costs on other species are staggering. Birds, fish, and turtles are suffocating on plastic rings, dying from straws in their windpipes, and suffering birth defects due to their ingestion of endocrine-disrupting microplastics.

Then there's the killing of our ocean life, with garbage-laden dead zones growing to the size of small countries.

That, of course, messes with human health, since plastics accumulate as they move up the food chain. If you eat animal flesh, you're consuming about a teaspoon of plastic a week. Even vegans are not exempt, since the microplastics can move through soil into plant tissue. A recent study of produce from an Italian supermarket reported microplastics in carrots, lettuce, broccoli, potatoes, apples, and pears. The tree fruits were especially high in the stuff, possibly because of they're perennials and have more time to absorb it.

And not inconsequentially, litter makes us feel bad about where we live. It's hard to feel pride of place, or kinship with a living planet, if your street or neighborhood or city is awash in ugly, useless crap.

Jeff and I talked about how Litterati works. Why large data sets can change minds and set policy. The function of transparency in rationalizing systems to eliminate inefficiencies and externalities.

And why Litterati is about solutions rather than finger pointing, when finger pointing would be so easy (and to me, at least, really damn satisfying).

Give a listen, download the app, check out their data, and join Jeff and his citizen army of Litterati in becoming part of the solution.

Links

Litterati.org (with links to their social media accounts and iOS and Android apps for download)

Jeff's TEDx talk

Other examples of crowdsourced environmental data collection initiatives

eBird

iNaturalist

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