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Tech Entrepreneur Uses Instagram to Tackle Waste

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Workers move hundreds of crates of tomatoes from field to cannery in 1950.

By Megan Varner, The George Washington University

About to take a bite, you suddenly stop yourself and set your fork down. You can’t believe you almost ruined such a delicious looking presentation before taking a picture for Instagram! The next few minutes are filled with #noms #foodporn #yumm, tagging friends, and choosing that perfect filter before sharing and finally getting to taste your meal.

Instagram’s most recent user statistics reveal that the network is bombarded with upwards of 40 million photos every day. With hundreds of different hashtags that could be used on food related images, it is hard to track just how many photos have food related content. #foodporn is hashtagged on over 37 million Instagram photos and #food is linked to more than 132 million photos as of Oct. 2014.

Social media has become the place for people to share what’s on their plate. We show the world what we’re eating, where we went, with whom and every detail of the experience. Every time we get a uniquely presented meal at a restaurant, finish cooking an intricate recipe, or even if we just pick up a bagel and coffee on the way to work, we want people to know about it.

Eating has always been a traditionally communal event, religious ceremonies, holidays, celebrations, and even funerals are intertwined with specific foods and traditions. Social media outlets like Instagram give us a way to preserve that sense of community while we, as a society, rush through daily life often not finding time for sit-down meals and face-to-face communication.

Food is something that everyone has in common. We all have favorite foods and restaurants, things we want to try, and goals for our eating habits, which is why food related content on social media sites is so popular. A 2011 study found that nearly half of online adults say that they learn about food and restaurants via social networks. We have become so ingrained to share everything we do on social media, especially when it comes to food, that people have even started sharing images of food waste!

Food packaging and waste account for 49 percent of litter. Jeff Kirschner, a tech entrepreneur, decided to combine litter pick up and awareness with our social media food sharing obsession, and founded Litterati in Sept. 2012 with the hopes of cleaning up the streets and sparking a conversation about how we think about trash.

Watch: Jeff Kirschner explain the story behind Litterati.

Litterati created a new activity for food-instagrammers, encouraging them to act when they see a piece of litter. They take a photo of the trash and share it on Instagram with the hashtag #litterati. Then, they pick it up and put it into a trash can or recycling bin.

The project uses Instagram and the popularity of food related posts, coupled with geotagging and an element of competition, as tools to create a movement for crowd-sourced litter disposal. Interactive maps document our impact on the planet and, by searching images with this hashtag, we can see just how pervasive food packaging is when it comes to litter. Kirschner shares with Talking Good his hopes that the Litterati movement will help draw attention to food waste, make consumers more mindful so that they actually ‘see’ packaging as a precursor to litter, and notice how we don’t just waste food, we carelessly toss things related to food all over our cities and streets.

In the two years since its start, Litterati has been tagged in almost 73,000 photos containing litter in over 40 countries, and continues to gain momentum as the hashtag becomes more popular. Partnerships with local Whole Foods, the California Coastal Commission, and the National Resources Defense Council have been raising Litterati awareness by promoting Instagram competitions and offering free goodies and prizes for participants.

Litterati has all the ingredients to become a trending social media campaign, with the potential to create an online movement that can gradually make a big dent in the vexing litter problem. As I scroll through my Instagram feed, seeing hundreds of dinner plates and Starbucks mugs, I can’t help but have the urge to break it up with a crumpled receipt or a discarded soda can off the street. Next time I see a piece of trash not only will I pick it up, but I will be thinking of a creative angle to capture that perfect Instagram picture.

Megan Varner is a junior studying Journalism and Mass Communication at The George Washington University.

This story is from our Planet Forward Campus Voices program—an opportunity for students to celebrate and explore our complex relationship with what we eat and where our food comes from.