Litterati: A Global Digital Landfill of Instagrammed Trash
I’m always looking down. It’s not because I’m aloof or avoidant—quite the contrary: I’ve become aware. And it’s a four-year-old’s fault.
Last summer, while hiking through the woods with my two little kids, my daughter noticed a plastic tub of kitty litter in a creek.
“Daaaad-dy,” she said in a puzzled voice. “That doesn’t go there.”
Sure I’d seen litter before. But that moment, witnessed through a child’s eyes, opened mine. Discarded coffee cups, strewn soda cans, and ripped candy wrappers—I now see them everywhere. The seemingly infinite number of cigarette butts soiling our streets makes me wonder if smokers have altogether quit using ashtrays. It’s mind-boggling.
Seeing my daughter’s perplexed expression reminded me of when I was a kid at summer camp. Before our parents came to visit, our director instructed us to each pick up five pieces of trash. Essentially, we were crowdsource-cleaning the camp.
Why not apply that same model to the entire planet, and leverage technology to make it both fun and interesting?
That’s when Litterati was born. Our vision is a litter-free world. Here’s how it works.
1. Find a piece of litter
2. Photograph it with Instagram
3. Add the hashtag “#litterati”
4. Throw away or recycle the litter
At first, it was just me. I'd photograph and pick up ten things a day. Litter became approachable. Picking it up became surprisingly enjoyable, even artistic. More importantly, I was documenting my personal impact on cleaning the earth. Pretty soon, others began contributing to the Digital Landfill—a photo gallery of all the litter that had been picked up and properly discarded. It wasn’t long before several thousand pieces had been collected and a community was born.
Then came the Great Wall of China. More specifically, a Litterati-tagged photo of a plastic wrapper laying on the walkway of one of the world’s greatest man-made wonders. That picture inspired the design of a global map which uses GPS to display where litter is being collected. We saw people from opposite sides of the world contributing to the same cause. It was a powerful reminder of how we are truly all connected. As the Litterati movement grew, participants began tagging items with additional descriptors, providing insight to the most commonly found brands and products. Suddenly there was data.
Picking up trash is nothing new. Litter walks and coastal cleanups have been going on for years. They are effective and necessary, but limited in their ability to collect information. Other than weight, rarely is any data captured. We just haven’t had the right tools. Until now.
About 1.5 billion people are armed with smart phones, creating an unprecedented opportunity to gather a wealth of information. This newfound knowledge can be leveraged to make more strategic decisions about where we place commercial trash bins and recycling units. We can foster a deeper understanding of what brands and product types are most commonly littered, and work with those corporations to design more environmentally-friendly packaging.
With worldwide population increasing at an exponential rate and our purchasing behavior driven by habitual consumption, it is imperative that we take advantage of the data to come up with effective solutions that can promote positive change on a global scale.
Nearly 11,000 pieces have been picked up, cataloged, and properly discarded. But data is only part of the Litterati story. What’s equally, if not more important, is our elevated awareness. We are starting to notice the blight that plagues our playgrounds, stains our streets, and contaminates our waterways.
Fortunately, people are taking action. Schools are getting involved, neighborhood environmental groups are attracting younger, tech-savvy participants, and corporations such as Whole Foods have introduced Litterati-based campaigns promoting social responsibility.
This is just the beginning. Movements take time. Like a child, they need to be nurtured and stimulated in order to grow. But if you provide them with opportunity and support their development, they have the potential to change the world. Join the Litterati—the planet will thank you.