The world’s top environmentalist, Sir David Attenborough said, “never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that … the future of humanity and indeed, all life on earth, now depends on us.”
Truer words have never been spoken; this can relate to one of our biggest problems. Rubbish. Rubbish is everywhere. You walk down the road and you see a discarded coffee cup, cigarette butts, even a few McDonalds wrappers. While society has made drastic changes to turn around the effects of climate change and pollution, with stores banning single-use plastic bags and encouraging the use of reusable bags, it still isn’t enough.
When looking at cleaning up the planet we often believe we are just one person and that we can’t make a difference. Back in primary school, we had what was called an “Emu Parade.” The teachers lined the class up and we had to walk in a line up to the back of the school, picking up five pieces of rubbish along the way. While five pieces of rubbish on your own won’t make much of a difference, get thirty kids to pick up five pieces of rubbish each, and pretty quickly you have a clean playground.
Understanding this principle that many hands can make a difference, Jeff Kirscher created an app called Litterati. Litterati is a crowdsourced litter clean-up model that has been applied to the entire planet. With the vision to create a litter-free world. It started by taking a picture of a cigarette on Instagram, then he took several more photos, and what he learned is that litter soon became artistic and approachable, and at the end of two days he had over fifty photos of litter on his phone, and he had a record of the positive impact he was having on the planet. “That is 50 fewer things that you might see, or some bird might eat.” After sharing his experience, others started participating in the clean-up initiative.
Each photo tells a story, it tells us who picked up what, the geotag tells us where, and a time stamp tells us when. Soon the clean-up becomes much more than about pictures of trash and rather more about data. The tie in with Google Maps allows us to see where others are picking up rubbish. The data can allow us to make a difference. App creator Jeff Kirschner shares an example of how “Litterati” has helped make a positive impact. When San Francisco wanted to know what percentage of litter was cigarettes, they sent a team out to survey the area with pencils and clipboards, which they wanted to lead to a twenty cent tax increase, to help clean up the city. This worked until a big tobacco company sued the city claiming that “pencils and clipboards are neither precise nor provable.” But ‘Litterati’ providing proof of each cigarette, whether Pall Mall or Malboro, the discarded item was then geotagged, and time stamped, providing the proof needed to implement that tax to be put towards cleaning up the city.
“Every city in the world has a unique litter fingerprint. And that fingerprint leads to both the source of the problem and a path to the solution.” Kischer shares in his Ted Talk titled “The app that makes clean up fun. When we see what the biggest impact to our litter problem is, we can make a difference.”
In 2016 a video of a couple of marine biologists trying to remove a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose went viral, shortly after this video, people realised what the impact of single-use plastic straws was having on the environment. Major brands saw this, and they decided to change to paper straws, or stop giving out plastic straws as a result, and only making them available upon request.
The rise of social media has never made the population more aware of their impact on the planet. Trending hashtags are a dime a dozen with hashtag challenges often ranging from extremely silly to extremely dangerous. Recently a hashtag challenge that has been around since 2015 gained some traction, after a community discussion on Reddit suggested a global challenge “to make the world a better place.” The hashtag #Trashtag has seen users across the globe cleaning up their local community, and posting photos of their efforts along with the tag.
Upon learning about Litteratti and the #Trashtag challenge I instantly downloaded the app and was determined to do my part to help clean up London, a place that is often described as dirty. Walking out of work I started paying closer attention to the pathway, and what was around, and soon noticed all the rubbish lining the walk. I stopped to take a photo of the rubbish, mark it in the app, before picking up the rubbish. I had barely gone five metres when I stopped to pick up more rubbish, repeating the same steps of taking a photo and marking the location. At first, I felt a bit ridiculous walking down the path, stopping every few metres during peak hour to pick up rubbish and take a photo. Soon, I had over twenty pieces of rubbish in my hand in the 500-metre walk to the train station, and what I learned quickly was the people walking around me took notice of what I was doing, some even stopped to pick up rubbish along the way with me. But, each time I marked my efforts in the app, the global impact number increased. Although, I may have only picked up twenty pieces of rubbish, the global number of pieces collected was now at 3,145,766. My five minutes of effort was being recognised on a global scale and is making a difference, with the hope from the data collected that brands and organisations will make an effort to stop litter before it hits the ground.
Like in primary school with the “Emu Parade,” I alone could not clean the whole playground, but with everyone's efforts the playground, and the planet can become a cleaner place for us all.