When Jeff Kirschner first developed the idea for his startup Litterati, he was walking in the woods with his two children. Living in the Bay area of California and working on a screenplay, Kirschner had hit writer’s block. During the walk, his 4-year-old daughter noticed a plastic tub of cat litter.
“She just looked at me with this innocent smile and she’s like, ‘Daddy, that doesn’t go there,’” Kirschner said, “It was really an innocent comment, but it was an eye-opening moment for me.”
This brought back a memory of when Kirschner was a kid at summer camp. Before the parents came, the camp director would instruct the children to each pick up five pieces of litter, and within a few minutes, the camp was spotless.
He asked himself, why don’t we apply that crowdsourced model to the entire planet?
Thus came the inspiration for Litterati, founded in 2014 and now based in Chapel Hill.
Posting photos to Instagram of random litter he would stumble across and then picking it up, Kirschner said the litter became “artistic” on Instagram. Because it was now artistic, it became more approachable.
“After a week I had 50 photos on my phone and I picked up every single piece that I photographed,” Kirschner said. “I realized that the same way people are measuring the steps they walk or the miles they ride or even the calories they consume, I was measuring the positive impact I was having on the planet.”
What started as a hashtag on Instagram grew into a full app platform on iOS and Android and a community in 165 countries that has picked up almost 5.3 million pieces of litter, Kirschner said. Users share photographs of the litter they’ve picked up, and Litterati has translated these photographs into data on litter worldwide, which it has licensed to schools, brands and nonprofit organizations to help shape policy.
While the startup began in California, Kirschner has moved with his family to Chapel Hill and is now a part of the Triangle tech scene. In 2016, he took his Litterati story to a Ted Talk as part of a Ted residency.
Litterati’s app has 4,000 local challenges that have been created around the world, and the startup has raised over $1 million in funding from the likes of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and The National Science Foundation.
Ultimately, Litterati’s mission is to create a litter-free world and inspire people to be a part of the solution. While no easy feat, Litterati has countless ‘stories of impact.’
In the Netherlands, the Litterati community picked up 50,000 plastic fireworks called Knetterbals, leading a major retailer—the largest Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn—to ban the sale of these firecrackers.
Meanwhile in Modesto, Calif., fifth-grade students picked up more than 1,200 pieces of litter on campus and saw how common plastic straws were in the litter. So they went to their school principal, leading the school to stop purchasing straws.
Kirschner said that when it comes to protecting the environment, people often suffer from a sense of hopelessness and feeling overwhelmed, that the problem is so massive there is not much they as individuals can do. But Litterati can help change that mindset.
Positive Visual Feedback, Real-World Impact
Litterati users can see visually how much litter they’ve picked up and how this photo-collected data has fueled change in policy or packaging in real places. By simply taking a photograph, Litterati’s analysis extracts what the object is, the material, brand and location and can use this information to actually help get to the root of the problem, Kirschner said.
“How do you tell that narrative to people: No, you can make a difference, you can actually do something,” Kirschner said. “So, with Litterati, I think one of the advantages we have is that we are able to show people that, you know what, you can make a difference.”
During Covid-19 stay-at-home orders and complete lockdowns and quarantines across the world, users may be less able to go out and track their litter pickup, and Kirschner has kept the changing times in perspective.
“I actually put out an email to our community three weeks ago,” Kirschner said. “The subject line just said, ‘Protecting the planet can wait. Protecting your health cannot.’ The thing we’ve been encouraging everyone to do—go out and clean up—now we’re telling you to stop, just stop, because we believe that’s just the right thing to do.”
Still, the app continues to make an impact. Kirschner said 30,000 pieces of litter had been picked up in just the past week, and school boards and companies for employee engagement programs have reached out because Litterati provides a way to stay connected while we are disconnected.