Local Innovation, Global Impact

This Community is “Crowdsource-Cleaning” the Planet
Blog Post
June 13, 2017

Last month New America CA hosted #RiseLocal, celebrating inspiring examples of local innovation. Over the course of the summer, we will share blog posts from speakers starting with Jeff Kirschner of Litterati, who is "crowdsource-cleaning" the planet. 

It started with a cigarette butt.  And my 4 year old daughter.  

I was hiking through the woods in Oakland, California when my little girl noticed a plastic tub of cat litter in a creek. “Daddeeeeee,” she said, “that doesn’t go there.” That was the eye-opening moment.

litterati baseball

I was reminded of a lesson I learned as a kid at summer camp. On visiting day, we’d each have to pick up five pieces of litter.  When five hundred kids each pick up five pieces of litter, it doesn’t take long before you’ve got a spotless camp. So I thought, why not apply that same “crowdsource-cleaning” model to the entire planet? And leverage technology to do it.

 That’s when Litterati was born. It began when I took the first photograph -- of that cigarette butt -- using Instagram.

litterati cig

 Fifty photos later I realized two things:

  1. Litter had become artistic and approachable.

  2. I was keeping a record of the positive impact I was having on the planet. (I threw out and/or recycled each piece I shot)

 Word began to spread and before long, Instagram photos from around the world started appearing with “#Litterati”.  That’s when I realized Litterati was more than just a collection of pretty pictures. We were becoming a community. And we were generating data. From there, it wasn’t long before we launched a Litterati iOS and Android application.  

 Each photo tells a story. It tells us who, what, where, and when. Hashtags identify brands and products (ie: #McDonalds, #Plastic). Geotags map problem areas. Timestamps indicate seasonal trends.  

litterati BK


So I put together a Google Map, plotting the individual points where I’d picked up litter. Suddenly I could visualize the problem. And as the community grew, the data grew.

Litter blends into the background of our lives, but what if we brought it to the forefront?  Imagine how that data could be used to make a difference?  Here are three ways Litterati is doing just that.

 Litterati has worked with several cities including San Francisco where we’ve provided data that measured the percentage of litter that came from cigarettes. The city used that data to help pass a tax on cigarette sales, generating a multi-million dollar revenue stream. But we see an even bigger opportunity; creating “City Litter Fingerprints”.


San Francisco, CA:

litterati SF

Oakland, CA:

litterati oakland


Central Park, NY:

Litterati ny

Those data fingerprints provide the root cause of the problem, which can lead to the path for a solution.

 We’ve also started working with brands. How might this information lead to brands becoming more environmentally mindful? It could lead to product innovation, sustainable packaging, and educating their customers. Instead of being seen as the villain, they can become the hero.

 Schools are using Litterati as a citizen-science tool. And they’re already making a difference. One group of 5th graders picked up 1247 pieces of litter. More importantly, they were able to identify their school’s most common type of litter — plastic straw wrappers from the cafeteria.

Litterati straw

Armed with this information, they approached the principal and asked why the school was still buying individually wrapped straws.

So they made a change. They stopped using straws and started using reusable water bottles. Simple and effective.

That first cigarette has now become a community in 114 countries. And recently, Litterati was featured by TED. Word is spreading.

Our world’s most complex problems require long-term thinking and even a change in consciousness. But it starts with one simple act. For anyone who believes this problem is too big, that your contribution won’t matter, you’re wrong. You can make a difference. And together, we create an impact.