Capturing the Beauty of Trash

In his 2008 book, Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough wrote about the strange condition of garbage—the thing we toss that, as soon as leaves our hands, goes to the magical place known as “away.” It’s the out-of-sight-out-of-mind principle. Once it’s gone, it becomes somebody else’s problem.

That’s the starting point of a community project known as Litterati I learned about at the end of last year. It’s a smartphone-based initiative that hopes to produce less frivolous trash, and make some nice photos in the process.

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Photo by @GoProInParadise / Instagram

A piece of trash is physical, something you can hold in your hand, but collectively garbage adds up to a mountain of data. That’s especially true when it comes to litter, the worst kind of trash—toss-asides that end up in our streets and parks, clogging rivers and contaminating habitats.

Jeff Kirschner, a former web executive, started Litterati with the hope of categorizing litter. Piggybacking on Instagram, he asked users to take photos of trash items around their communities, then tag them with the hashtag #litterati. All together, he’s pulled data on which items are likely to be irresponsibly tossed aside (coffee cups, it turns out, are a big one) and the most littered places in each community.

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Photo by @urdarbrunnur / Instagram

The idea has elements of idealism, but not the naïve kind. The ultimate goal is a litter-free planet but before that, Kirschner just wants to build a record of which items end up as litter most often. Plastics and cigarettes currently top the list. Geo-tagging of photos also helps create a map of litter hotspots, which can be helpful in increasing trash cans in those areas, and ultimately in convincing brands—like Starbucks or McDonalds for instance, whose cups and wrappers commonly turn up as litter—to offer incentives for customers to return used receptacles. A few Starbucks in the Bay Area have already agreed.

The more impressive part, I’d say, is the marriage of trash and photography. Not every Instagram photo deserves a Pulitzer, but some of the images portray the beauty of trash. Or just as often, they show beautiful places marred by throwaways that don’t belong.