#LITTERATI’S DIGITAL LANDFILL
A Conversation with JEFF KIRSCHNER, Founder of #LITTERATI
By Meaghan Coffey
Litter is one of the world’s problems that has the unfortunate curse of anonymity. It would be hard to find anyone who would openly admit they were that kid who chucked the empty bag of Cheetos out of their car window while driving along Pacific Coast Highway, but someone put that bag next to that dinged Coke can. For every piece of litter you pass, there’s virtually no way to tie the piece to the person. Perhaps that’s why the ever-increasing amount of litter in the world seems too big of a problem to solve; people feel very little motivation to change their ways when there is no way to be judged or held accountable for their actions.
Jeff Kirschner, however, has developed a way to come at the problem from an entirely new angle, utilizing the biggest tool we have as a society: social media. Litterati is fueled by Instagram and Twitter users who upload pictures, time stamps, and exact locations of the litter they find before they throw it out. The result? Less litter, of course, and an interactive website that allows you to see the size of the problem, the companies who are contributing the least bio-degradable products, and which of those products are most likely to find their end a few feet shy of a trashcan or a few miles away from one on a hike. I talked to Kirschner about the Litterati project, how far it’s come, and where it’s going.
Meaghan Coffey: How did Litterati find it’s start and what sustains it?
Jeff Kirschner: I was hiking in the Oakland Hills with my two kids, when my four-year old daughter noticed that someone had thrown a plastic tub of cat litter into a creek “Daddy, that doesn’t go there,” she said. That was an eye-opening moment that I here I am living in the Bay Area, a place known for being ecologically responsible and yet everywhere you look, there’s trash. That’s when I remembered a lesson that I had learned as a kid at summer camp. Before our parents came to visit, our director would instruct all the campers to pick up five pieces of trash. Several hundred kids each picking up five pieces led to a much cleaner camp. I wondered what would happen if we applied that same crowd-sourced cleaning model to the entire planet. That became the inspiration for Litterati.
Litterati is really sustained by the community. Each of us contributes to the greater good. And when you’re part of a bigger movement, it keeps you motivated. Knowing that there are others who share your purpose and passion–that’s a powerful and unifying force.
MC: The Digital Landfill is a fantastic idea in itself by bringing awareness to the problem, but the way you have taken it to the next step–compiling lists of companies whose products are contributing the most litter and contacting them–is genius. Have you been able to open any lines of communication with these companies to work towards a solution?
JK: We haven’t contacted any companies just yet. Our focus is on sharing the story and building the movement. That said, we’re excited at the possibility of collaborating with brands to create solutions that are “win-win-win.” That is, a win for the consumer, a win for the brand, and a win for the planet.
MC: Is there one specific photo someone has sent in that has stuck with you for one reason or another?
JK: Truthfully there have been many incredible photographs. But one recent image has made a real impact–a scuba diver posted a photo from the ocean floor–a Heineken can found off the coast of Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. It was a powerful reminder of the far-reaching scale of the problem. Litter is truly a global challenge.
MC: You have an interactive feature on your website that lets a viewer track what pieces of trash are coming from which country, city, neighborhood, right down to the street corner. What was the impetus to develop this map?
JK: People have been picking up litter for years. Either on their own, or as part of organized clean-ups. Occasionally they’ll collect some information, like total weight, but for the most part there has been little data captured. We just haven’t had the right tools. Until now.
With hundreds of millions of people carrying GPS-enabled phones, there’s an opportunity to learn more about litter, starting with its location. The information is empowering. For example, we can be more strategic about where we place commercial trash cans, recycling units and compost bins. We can gain a deeper understanding of which brands and product types are most commonly found in certain areas. The key will be in how we leverage this data to test new ideas and build effective solutions.
MC: Finish this sentence: The single most important change that needs to be made to reduce litter around the world is…
JK: …an increased mindfulness.
MC: You were recently featured on Upworthy, one of the best websites on the internet (in my humble opinion). What has the reaction been from that audience?
JK: It’s been awesome. The outreach and support has been overwhelming and many people have joined the movement. We’ve seen significant growth in the number of contributing individuals and the number of pieces picked up. We’re honored that Upworthy felt we were worthy of being upped.
MC: And what’s next on your horizon?
JK: To listen and learn from the Litterati community. It’s imperative that we provide them with the greatest experience possible, and let each person know that every time they pick up just one piece, they make an impact. As Howard Zinn said, “Small acts when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Jeff Kirschner is the founder and force behind #Litterati.
Written by Meaghan Coffey
Photography Courtesy of Jeff Kirschner
Design by Marie Havens
Portrait: Jeff Kirschner, Founder of #Litterati, 2013, Photography Courtesy of Jeff Kirschner
#Litterati Instagram Submissions, Photography Courtesy of Jeff Kirschner