By Morag Barrett
Jeff Kirschner is a former world backpacker turned bartender turned serial entrepreneur. His journey began after his daughter saw a plastic tub of cat litter thrown into a copse of nearby woods. This ignited a spark in Jeff that turned into Litterati, a movement that's using crowdsourcing to clean the planet. Now in 185 countries, the Litterati community identifies, maps and collects waste, resulting in an open litter database--the largest of its kind! Litterati is backed by Silicon Valley investors, the National Science Foundation, and Jeff's work has been featured by the National Geographic Society, Rolling Stone, Fast Company and Forbes.
Jeff’s Early Life
After a failed attempt to become an all-star hockey player at 5-years-old (don’t worry, he hung up his jersey to give others a fighting chance), Jeff went on to graduate from the University of Michigan, but he didn’t yet know what he wanted to do. He applied to law school, as one does when they’re trying to figure out their future, and was out before he even got in. By following his gut, Jeff ended up bartending and teaching kids how to play soccer, where he met a group of people who had spent months traveling around the world. He thought, "You can do that?" and immediately knew that’s what he was going to do next. His world travelling put him on the path towards Litterati.
Inspired By The World
In the far Eastern regions of Indonesia, in the lunar-esque landscape of Kelimutu, Jeff realized something that completely changed his life: that it’s okay to live your life differently than the way you grew up. After living in a community where most people ended up in white collar positions of lawyer, teacher, or doctor, meeting artists and potters and all types of people across the globe made Jeff realize that everyone can find happiness doing exactly what they loved. And Jeff loved discovering the far-off, remote places of the world. Working to eradicate global pollution and save the planet he so adored exploring was a natural next step.
The Rundown on Litterati
After returning home with a new perspective on the globe, Jeff noticed that in the many discussions on global pollution he heard, the consumer was most often blamed for polluting the planet. Jeff disagreed -- he knew it was more complicated than that. From his perspective--and eventually Litterati’s--global pollution starts at the beginning of the supply chain with packaging and the manufacturing, and then continues through the retail, distribution, consumption, recycling, and end of life cycle for that packaging. We all play a role in this issue and for Litterati the question became, “how do you get to the root cause of the problem?” That's how data became such a significant part of what Litterati does, because once you understand a problem from a holistic perspective, i.e. exactly what's leaking out into the environment and where it's leaking out to, it allows you to understand why. Then you can come up with solutions that can be tested, measured, and eventually implemented to stop the rampage of environmental disaster.
How Litterati Collects Data
Through the Litterati app (available through iOS and android) you can snap a photo of litter that's in the environment, whether it's a Starbucks cup, a cigarette bud or plastic bottle cap. Litterati’s computer vision models then work to identify what the objects that are included in the photo, such as their materials and their branding. Everything is timestamped and geo-tagged, and then Litterati aggregates the data to understand the litter fingerprint of an area, whether it’s Boulder, Colorado or Jakarta. This block-by-block information leads to valuable insights that allows for the creation of actionable sustainability campaigns, such as when the city of San Francisco wanted to understand what percentage of discarded trash came from cigarette butts. They wanted this data because they were re-considering the 20% tax on all cigarette sales that went back to the city to fund clean-up efforts--they didn’t think that tax was appropriately high enough. Litterati’s data was used to look at the city holistically, which led to a doubling of that tax, now generating $4 million a year for the city of San Francisco’s clean-up work.
The Future With Litterati
Jeff is excited by the impact Litterati’s efforts are having on the world, from the cities they work with that are seeing improvement in their locations, to the individuals wanting to be a part of the solution. Whether it's the 70-year-old woman who has been cleaning up the beaches of Santa Monica for the last 4 years or the 14-year-old eighth grader who has sustainability as a key issue that they want to pursue in their life. Litterati has found that many people are desperate to contribute to making a cleaner, healthier planet, whether it's through climate change or saving the oceans, but they don't always know where to turn. With Litterati’s simple and tangible solution in their hands, everyone can contribute to a more sustainable future.
Watch away: Here!
Treat your earbuds: Here!