An app that tries to make picking up trash fun just got a $225,000 cash injection from the US government

Jeff Kirschner, creator of Litterati.

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Jeff Kirschner, creator of Litterati.
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Rob Price/BI

  • Litterati is an app that encourages users to pick up and track litter.
  • It has registered almost 1 million pieces of litter, just received $225,000 grant from the US National Science Foundation, and ran a successful Kickstarter campaign.
  • It was inspired by trash its founder Jeff Kirschner saw dumped in a creek while out hiking with his kids.

SAN FRANCISCO – Jeff Kirschner has a discarded tub of cat litter to thank for his business.

A few years ago, he was hiking with his kids when they spotted it dumped in a creek. “Daddy, that doesn’t go there,” his then-four-year-old daughter complained.

“I know it sounds cliché, but for me that was the eye-opening moment,” he said. Today, he runs Litterati, an app that “gamifies” picking up litter, letting users take photos of what they’ve collected and track their environmental efforts.

It’s now hitting some major milestones: On December 13, it successfully closed a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $50,000 for the company. To date, its users have picked up almost 1 million pieces of litter around the world (999,809, as of writing).

And the company has now been awarded a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a US government agency that funds research and education projects, Kirschner told Business Insider.

“We’re now literally a crowdsourced global community that’s cleaning the planet one piece [of litter] at a time,” he said.

The first piece of litter Jeff Kirschner picked up — a cigarette butt he posted on Instagram hashtagged #litterati.

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The first piece of litter Jeff Kirschner picked up — a cigarette butt he posted on Instagram hashtagged #litterati.
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Litterati

Litterati has around 60,000 users Kirschner said, in 115 countries – who collectively log about 10,000 pieces of picked-up litter a week.

It’s small, but so is the team: There are just two full-time employees, including Kirschner, and a handful of people volunteering their time, including three engineers and a community manager.

However, the two new sources of funding – the grant and the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign – may help accelerate things.

The Kickstarter just managed to hit its target – raising $51,432 after asking for $50,000 – and will invest the cash to beef up its app.

And the National Science Foundation grant will also go towards improving Litterati’s tech, Kischner said: “It’s an enormous deal, we couldn’t be any more thrilled.”

The app plans to let users join groups, so that schools, clubs, and other communities can track their collective efforts rather than having to go solo. It will also introduce maps, so litter-pickers can see what else is being picked up in their neighborhoods.

The company has a wealth of data, which it already uses for analysis. Second-graders in California mapped more than a thousand pieces of litter on their campus to identify trends, and the company has conducted an analysis of litter distribution in San Francisco for the city, leading to an increase in taxes on cigarettes. (Cigarettes are the second-most commonly tagged item on Litterati, according to its website.)

But Litterati now plans to more systematically try and analyze the data on litter it is collecting – a likely major long-term source of revenue to sustain the business.

“Can we provide insight as a service to cities so they can understand exactly what’s on their streets … at any given point in time?” the 46-year-old founder said. “Can we do the same with brands? Can we help a brand understand what is your environmental footprint for your packaging?”

A map showing litter distribution in a school playground. Each pin is a piece of litter that was found by a user, and a plastic straw is highlighted.

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A map showing litter distribution in a school playground. Each pin is a piece of litter that was found by a user, and a plastic straw is highlighted.
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Litterati.

The company doesn’t currently have any public partnerships with companies, though Kirschner said well-known brands have reached out to it, including a “very well-known coffee company” asking about the data Litterati holds on it.

“This is a massive problem,” Kirschner said about litter. “It impacts the economy, the environment, it degrades community pride, it decreases property value, it kills wildlife, and now with the plastic pollution in the ocean situation, it is literally poisoning our food system.”