It was the sound that every student at my primary school dreaded. When those three bells rang in a row during lunch, we reluctantly paused our games of stuck-in-the-mud and trudged down to the big steps to get a lecture from the principle.
Three bells was primary school code for “too much litter”. After hanging our heads in shame for 10 minutes in front of the principal who wasn’t “angry” just “disappointed”, the whole school would be mobilised into a 1000-strong army to pick up 5 pieces of rubbish each.
And just like that, 5000 pieces of rubbish would be scavenged and the school would be spotless.
Whether it be Clean Up Australia Day or the annual school camp emu bob, litter cleanup has always been in the crowdsourcing business.
Now an entrepreneur wants to take the primary school emu bob global with his app Litterati. The app allows user to snap pictures of their litter, geotag it and keep track of the litter they’ve scooped up from the environment.
Jeff Kirschner got the idea after he took a photo of a cigarette using Instagram. After snapping a few more aesthetic pieces of litter and raking in a few more likes he realised that not only could litter be artistic, at the end of a few days he had picked up about 50 pieces of rubbish and documented each one.
Soon after spreading the word of his idea, he started noticing other people taking part around the world – as far away as China. When he started geotagging them on Instagram, something occurred to him – it was more than a way to encourage picking up litter, it was a way to collect mass data on litter.
“Every city in the world has a unique litter fingerprint, and that fingerprint provides both the source of the problem and the path to the solution,” Jeff said in his TED Talk.
Take Oakland for example. When the Litterati community descended on one of its litter-strewn downtown blocks, they picked up 1500 pieces of litter and noticed one thing – that most of the litter was taco sauce packets from a booming Mexican business nearby. Most of the packets weren’t even open.
This little gem of data provided a blueprint for how to slash the litter problem in downtown Oakland. If this data was presented to the company, they could help save money and the planet by only giving sauce packets on request or having bulk sauce dispensers.
Jeff was even contacted by San Francisco lawyers so they could work out what percentage of litter in the city came from cigarettes. The lawyers were being sued by big tobacco for placing a tax on cigarettes without any reliable proof they were a litter problem. But with Jeff’s Instagram account, the lawyers could not only defend the tax but double it, generating four million dollars a year for San Francisco to clean itself up.
So far with Jeff’s app, over 330,000 pieces of litter have been rescued from the streets and the mouths of clueless animals.
He hopes to start a global, anti-litter movement.
Oh how happy my school principal would be.
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