15 May Ocean Heroes: Jeff Kirschner, Litterati
Jeff Kirschner is a man on a mission. His brainchild, Litterati, is a community that’s crowdsource-cleaning the planet one piece at a time. I met Jeff last year at the IUCN World Conservation Congress where I was inspired by his story and his practical approach to changing the world.
AM: So tell me Jeff, what’s the elevator pitch for Litterati?
JK: We are a community that’s crowdsource cleaning the planet, one piece of litter at a time. And through that process, we’re collecting quite a bit of data – such as brand identity and source materials and mapping problem areas. We’ve started working with brands, cities, and schools, all of whom are using our applications to create a litter-free world.. What started out with me picking up a single cigarette has now turned into a community of 114 countries and a group of activists who are cleaning the planet one piece at a time.
The cigarette that started it all. Jeff uploaded it to instagram – and the rest is history.
AM: Wow, that’s fantastic! And how has the uptake been on this project or on the downloads and use of the app?
JK: You know, it’s not lost on us that litter is one of those problems that most people don’t think about. And yet, it affects all of us. Right? It impacts the economy and the environment, it degrades communities, it poisons the food systems, and it kills animals. And so we’ve introduced a technology that allows anyone to participate in a very simple action that contributes to a much greater good.
AM: And what do you say to people who are “litter shy”, that is, unwilling to pick up or tag litter? How do you get those people to become Litterati converts?
JK: That’s a great question. I think it’s about getting people to try Litterati once. Pick up one piece. Become part of the community and see how it feels. If that doesn’t feel right for you, then maybe share the message – because it will feel right for others. Maybe the way you participate in this community is by sharing a tweet, or a Facebook post, or a TED Talk. Or maybe you’re the person who picks up 5 things a day, or we have people who pick up 100 things a day. Whatever makes you comfortable – that’s a great way to be a part of our community.
The most commonly tagged items on Litterati’s app. Why am I not surprised that plastic is number one…
AM: Yeah, absolutely! And have you always been a “trash guy”? How did you get into this field?
JK: I was never an active environmentalist. I started my career as a writer, working in advertising. I got into this because I took a walk in the woods with my two little kids and my daughter noticed someone had thrown a plastic tub of cat litter in a creek and simply said “Daddy, that doesn’t go there”. And she opened my eyes to the world in a way that I frankly hadn’t seen before.
AM: Fantastic, that’s really exciting. With your work with the schools, what are the impacts that you’ve seen already with introducing this tool to kids or teens? Working in environmental education I’ve noticed these days it can sometimes be hard to get kids off their smartphones, and what’s great about Litterati is that they don’t have to! It’s tying them into this online network while getting them outside and getting them to make a personal contribution to a cleaner planet. How have you found the roll out in schools?
JK: I think what’s nice is that it’s such a simple tool. It’s easy for teachers to adopt it integrate it into the classroom, and kids get excited because they can use their smartphones to do something in the world of citizen science. You know, litter is everywhere. So it doesn’t take long for a classroom to get involved: all they need to do is walk out into their own schoolyard, or the 1 block that surrounds their campus and they’ll notice litter everywhere. And so if we can make that platform simple for teachers and students and schools to adopt, and then someday start having the schools compete against one another, share best practices, things like that – we think that that’s the way to build long term transformational change, by starting with our youngest kids.
The Litterati community is growing quickly. Be a part of the change!
AM: And on the other end of the spectrum, how has the response been from industry or “trash makers”?
JK: I think some of the industry is going to see this as a real opportunity to get out in front of the problem instead of being reactive to it – saying “okay, we understand that there is an environmental harm that our packaging might be causing – we also might be losing money through, let’s say, unopened packages of ketchup or hot sauce that are ending up as litter”.
How can we redesign or think about things from the ground up that are not only economically beneficial to industry’s bottom line but also environmentally friendly, so that we don’t create that negative impact on the environment?
AM: So just one last question from me to close this off: what do you think right now is the single biggest thing that is hold us back from living in a trash-free world?
JK: That is a great question. I would say it is probably a mind-set. We live in a time of convenience. We live in a time with disposable, throwaway packaging where it’s so easy to get a plastic cup at a Starbucks or to grab a plastic bag of chips off of a convenience store shelf and go. We’re in such a rush to get everywhere that a lot of the packaging materials are designed to appeal to our need for convenience. And so if we were to slow down a little and be more mindful about our choices, I think we might get a lot closer to a litter-free world.
AM: I totally agree. Is there anything else you want to say to close this out?
JK: I would invite everyone to become a part of this community – download the app and join us. We like to say that individually you can make a difference, but together we create an impact.