Counting Cans (and Bottles)

When collecting litter at Community Clean Ups or on personal rubbish walks, we always do our best to separate the recycling from the general rubbish. However, that’s just the start of the process …

Jon and I take the recycling home and the gloves come out: each item is removed from the bag and recorded on a mobile phone by brand and type. Neighbours – if you’ve ever wondered why we’re standing near our garage and saying things like “Coca Cola, can. Dr. Pepper, plastic. Stella, can”, this is why!

This recording is then transcribed and each item added to a spreadsheet so we can keep a tally of what brands we’re finding.  Why do we bother?  While part of it is curiosity, the underlying reason is that this data is very important: knowing what is being thrown out is half the battle in coming up with solutions because it helps us identify who is doing the littering and it also gives us an idea of which brands to lobby for reduced packaging or a willingness to take on greater social responsibility.

We are currently only doing this for recycling because, as you may have gathered from the above description, it is rather time consuming.  However, we would love to be able to record everything we find; for example, to prove that brands like Subway and Tesco are some of the most littered in Chippenham, and to determine whether we find more crisp packets or sweet wrappers.  We would also like to record the location of where we’re finding litter so we can see which areas are rubbish magnets.

Enter Rob and Andrej.  My background is as an academic researcher working with technology and behaviour change, so perhaps it wasn’t a stretch to come up with a high-tech solution.  These University of Bristol students have spent the summer working on a litter recording app and mapping programme, and it was great to see the prototype at the weekend’s Community Clean Up.  While some tweaks are still needed, I think they’ve shown that recording litter in this way is not only feasible, but a necessary way forward.

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