Can Instagram help clean up the environment? Jeff Kirschner thinks so. Over the last 14 months, he’s been encouraging people to find stray trash, photograph it, add a hashtag (#litterati), and then throw the item away. The result: the largest database of litter in the world, and a potentially valuable tool for waste management.
Kirschner, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, came up the idea after a walk in the woods with his two kids. His daughter spotted a plastic tub lying in a creek and wondered what it was doing there. Kirschner started to notice litter all around him, and began photographing what he saw. Gradually, he realized he was building a useful picture of his surroundings.
“The first thing that happened was that the object went from something disgusting to a photo opportunity,” he says. “The second was that I suddenly had a record of the impact I was having on the planet.”
Since launching the Litterati web site, people have submitted more than 30,000 photographs of litter–everything from cigarette butts on the street to lightbulbs floating in the ocean (see some examples in the slideshow). And the site now has an international following: about half the images have come from outside the San Francisco area.
Watch Kirschner talking more about the project here:
Kirschner has also started working with companies, schools, and colleges. Whole Foods ran a promotion allowing anyone with a Litterati picture to claim a free cup of coffee. Chipotle organized a Litterati photo contest for coastal litter (first prize: burritos for a year). And teachers have used Litterati as a hands-on learning tool, going on litter-picking trips, and plotting what students find on the site.
As he builds up the database, Kirschner hopes that cities will want to use his data as well. Litterati could become a platform for locating trash cans in the most optimal places, for example.
The elegance of using Instagram is that Kirschner capitalizes on a community that’s already used to photographing everything–even the most mundane stuff. Litterati is turning trash into a form of art, elevating what we typically ignore to something we begin to notice.
Kirschner argues that people are more likely to act on litter when they’re part of a community. “Before, picking up litter was an individual action, and you felt ‘Well, how much impact can I possibly have?’ With Litterati, that action is being amplified and shared. There’s a whole group of people worldwide that’s dedicated to the same thing. That’s empowering.”