Photo: Litterati contributions in the Newport area, part of a global dataset of 5.9 million pieces of litter picked up, photographed, tagged, and discarded.

Newport, I need your help. As you well know, litter is a common sight on our streets and on our shorelines. Dunkin straws and Coolatta cups. Small plastic liquor bottles. Red and blue solo cup shards on our beaches. Candy wrappers. Capri Sun juice packets. Cigarette butts. 

I need your help to pick up and remove this litter. But more than that, I need your help to create data from it. Make data out of trash? Yes!  But why?  Because data is knowledge and knowledge is power. Let me explain. 

I use an app on my phone called Litterati. When I spot litter I snap a photo of it before I pick it up and get it to the trash. I then upload these photos to the Litterati community. And I tag each photo with identifying terms. I usually tag my photo with the type of material it is (usually “plastic”), any generic terms for what it is (like “straw” or “cup”), and the brand (if I can tell, for example the distinctive purple and orange straws I tag with “dunkin”). When I submit the photo and add tags to it, I am creating important data. 

Imagine if people like you in our community took the time this summer to not just remove those straws from the environment but to share them with the worldwide Litterati community and tag them. Surely in September we would have removed a lot of straws. But we would also have created some real data that can be used for advocacy. For what will we advocate? Well that is up to us as a community and as individuals. 

Data is power. And when you come armed to conversations with corporations and municipalities with data, it’s harder to ignore. It’s harder to sweep under the rug. How do you think Cumberland Farms will respond when we say, “Hey, look here! We’ve got data on 50 of your cups we collected around Aquidneck Island in July and August!”. Perhaps they will put their creative thinking and their profits into better solutions to keep their waste out of our environment, whether partnering with municipalities to implement better litter reduction strategies or changing their policies to more actively promote reusable cups. 

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I also want to acknowledge what a difficult time we are in with COVID-19. Our businesses have to use more to go containers than ever. Removing litter and creating data from it is not to shame or make life harder for our businesses, it’s to come up with better ideas as a community. Because great ideas, more innovation, and more effective waste and litter reduction strategies are desperately needed. 

So, that’s it plain and simple. I’m asking you to download the Litterati app. Join a worldwide community from 165 countries that has picked up and created data from almost 6 million pieces of litter. And when you spot some litter that needs to be picked up this summer take the time to snap a photo, share it with Litterati and tag it. One tip: allow your geolocation to be shared with this app so that when you add your photos it maps them to spot you collected them. Geographic information is data, too!  If just 5% of Newporters took me up on this challenge and shared just one litter posting with Litterati, we’d have over a thousand data points. 

We can learn a lot from that data. Ultimately, I want to use it to be part of a community conversation and think about effective solutions and advocacy strategies to deal with it. The plastic problem is a big one with a lot of layers. I don’t have all the answers. But there are great examples from other communities we can model. Data is needed so we can more effectively use the levers of power to change a system that keeps our environment clogged with plastics and other waste that is choking our ocean ecosystems and ending up in the stomachs of birds. 

Also please make sure to check out the great clean-up efforts of the Aquidneck Island non-profit Clean Ocean Access that promotes clean-ups and organizes clean-up events all year round. 

Please join me in picking up litter–safely and with sanitary practices–and sharing it with Litterati this summer. I can’t wait to see what data we create. 

You can find Litterati for your phone wherever you download apps, or visit the website at https://www.litterati.org/ 

Sean O’Connor

Newport Energy & Environment Commission 

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