Here’s an extreme idea to get people to stop littering the street: Swab the trash for the DNA of the litterer, run it through a citizen database, then name-and-shame the culprits with a poster campaign. Simple, no more littering.
That’s basically what an environmental cleanup group did in Hong Kong recently as part of a campaign to draw attention to the city’s litter problem. It wasn’t real in the sense that the images of litterers were composites of people’s faces, not actual people. But it certainly had the desired effect: The campaign generated lots of publicity for the groups involved.
“Saving face is a cultural idiosyncrasy here in Asia and is a strong motivating force,” says Lisa Christensen, CEO of the Hong Kong Cleanup Initiative. “By publicly displaying representations of litterers we aimed to trigger a change in behavior, and from the response, I reckon we’ve succeeded.”
Christensen has been organizing cleanups for 15 years. Last year, 50,000 volunteers came forward to pick up trash from the city’s streets, coastline, and walking paths. The billboard campaign was initiated by PR and advertising company Ogilvy & Mather, which worked pro bono. Hong Kong Cleanup sent samples to U.S.-based Parabon Nanolabs, whose “DNA Phenotyping software” predicted ancestry, eye, hair and skin color, freckling and face shape. Ogilvy and HKC then put up the billboards for Earth Day, near where they found the trash in the first place.
“Our joint objective was to create social change and raise awareness around the problem of litter in Hong Kong,” Christensen adds, via email. “While a little creepy for sure, it wasn’t real, as a controlled group volunteered to do this, in order to simply provoke thought and conversation.”
While cities are unlikely to name-and-shame litterers any time soon, they seem to have no qualms about dogs. Several places are now introducing DNA-swabbing for canine waste then penalizing dog owners. It seems to be effective, though it’s also a little Big Brotherish.