Jeff Kirschner has dabbled in many careers -- advertising, bartending, ringtone developer, writer -- but a simple walk with his young daughter led the Oakland resident to become a TED phenom. And it’s brought him to his passion project: helping the world map and measure litter. The app Kirschner has developed allows users to record data about litter -- its location, type and even brand -- for others to see worldwide, resulting in a global map and database of litter--and its removal. Kirschner believes this data can be used to develop strategies that reduce the litter that’s contaminating our natural spaces and oceans. Our founder, Sandra Ann Harris, recently caught up with the creator of this app called Litteratti to learn more about the project that aims to rid the planet of litter.
How--and why--did you develop Litteratti, an app that allows users to photograph litter and document it’s disposal to help clean up our environment? And does anyone call you a garbage man?
No, nobody calls me a garbage man! (Laughing.) Nor do I think of myself that way. More importantly, I don't think that's what defines me or the work we're doing. First of all, there’s a difference between garbage and litter, which is loose out in the environment not being managed. Garbage is what people put in their trash cans. We’re working on litter mapping and data collection.
Basically, I'm a social entrepreneur who's using technology and data to address a problem that happens to be litter. "Garbage man" focuses on the problem, rather than the solution that we're building -- a community of people intent on cleaning the planet.
About how we started: I was hiking in the Oakland woods when my four-year-old daughter noticed a plastic tub of cat litter in a creek. “Daddy, that doesn’t go there,” she said. Sure, I’d seen litter before, but seeing it through her eyes opened mine. I saw litter everywhere: sidewalks, streets and playgrounds. Then I remembered a lesson I learned as a kid at summer camp. On visiting day, our camp director would ask us each to pick up five pieces of litter. As the director put it: 200 kids x 5 pieces per kid = a cleaner camp.
Why not apply that model to the entire planet? Because of technology, we can do more with less, and make it scalable, replicable, and comprehensive. That’s when Litterati was born.
Why did you choose to call your organization Litterati?
When I first started, I was teaching a class on storytelling. I told my students about what I was doing: taking photos of litter and disposing of what I found. One of my students said, “What if you call it Litterazzi, like paparazzi for litter.” A second student said, “How about just ‘Litterati’?” It stuck. And that was that.
The whole concept of mapping litter really catches our imagination. Tell us about the site’s “litter maps” and how they engage users to create a solution...
Our mission is to empower people to create an impact. In order to do that, we provide them with technology and data analysis to eradicate litter. Mapping is just one component. There’s lots of other data, including brand identification (McDonald’s, Coke), material (plastic, aluminum), and object type (straw, can). The insight gathered from this data leads to Stories of Impact -- moments where our community and data lead to an insight, which drives an action that leads to positive change. My favorite example is from a group of fifth-graders who used Litterati to pick up 1,247 pieces of litter on their schoolyard. The data showed them that the most common type of litter was the plastic straw wrappers from their own cafeteria. The students went to their principal and asked, “Why are we still buying straws?” And they stopped. These stories are not only memorable but inspiring.
I'm guessing you've hit some challenges along the way as you've developed Litterati.
Environmental entrepreneurs are looking for strategies to develop their passion project and pay the bills at the same time. Can you share with us some of the hardest parts of forming the nonprofit and executing its mission?
Litterati is incorporated as a for-profit business on the path to becoming a B Corp. Part of our mission is to ensure that we’re building an organization that’s diverse and inclusive. We want to be open about our successes and failures, and create a culture that meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. We are working on identifying a revenue stream that will further our mission and sustain the work we do.
As a startup, the only thing that’s certain is your uncertainty. Roadblocks and obstacles are around every corner. People ridicule your idea, criticize your career path and question your judgement. Stress levels go up while account balances go down. One moment can be full of inspiration while the very next brings a wave of anxiety. It’s an emotional roller coaster, except the ride never ends. Rough spots seem more like rough stretches. But when you’re driven by a purpose rather than just a paycheck, you persist.
We noticed you did a Kickstarter. Congrats on raising that funding. And it sounds like you may have also gotten a grant to expand your work. Can you share with us your thoughts about using the nonprofit structure versus the for-profit model when starting a venture to effect positive environmental changes? I'm guessing we have some wanna be change makers out there who are thinking about which choice to make.
Litterati is structured as an LLC. While there are plenty of advantages to being a nonprofit, we see an opportunity to use business as a force for good. We believe that we can create more impact by identifying a self-sustaining business model. It’s early in the customer discovery process, but we’re already seeing interest in our data. If we provide significant value to brands, cities and NGOs in a way that empowers them to create more impact, then we’re confident there will be areas to monetize.
All of our development to date has been from volunteers. Over the years, we’ve received several small grants; however, this January, we were backed by the National Science Foundation.
How can someone participate in Litterati? Give us a little how-to info, please!
It’s simple. First, download the app on your iPhone or Android. Next, take a photo of a piece of litter you find, either on your street or in the wild -- really, anywhere. Add a tag (i.e. #Starbucks, #straw). Then, and most importantly, discard the litter.
It’s that simple.