Guest Columnist

Column: Trash photos prompt clean up, startup

June 17, 2013 

Four-year-old Tali was on a hike with her dad last September when she saw a plastic tub of cat litter sitting in a creek. She looked up and said, “Daddy, that doesn’t go there.”

And soon, Litterati was born.

Tali’s simple insight inspired her dad, Jeff Kirschner, to take action. The serial technology entrepreneur from San Francisco knew the power of social networks, so he began to take photos of trash on streets, beaches, mountains and creeks and posted them on Instagram, tagging the items’ manufacturers and the hashtag “#litterati,” before recycling or throwing the items away.

Friends and family began to join him, and soon #litterati posts were circling the globe. But one man got especially excited: Tali’s uncle Jonathan Frederick of Durham.

In a talk before dozens of Raleigh residents gathered for a night of creative presentations called PechaKucha, I’d have sworn Frederick dreamt up the whole thing.

That’s just how inspiring Litterati has proved to be. Making a difference isn’t just about having an idea, but about taking an action and inspiring others to do the same.

The director of the North Carolina Science Festival shared how his family’s small actions have inspired people in 30 countries and 28 states to photograph nearly 11,000 pieces of trash. A Whole Foods market in San Francisco got involved on Earth Day, providing free coffee to people who took part in the movement.

Frederick has since become a key ambassador for the young venture.

“If there is any part of the world to pick this up and run with it, I thought the Triangle area should be it,” he said.

Litterati photos in North Carolina have accelerated since Frederick began sharing the movement. He hopes to give more talks and to inspire communities to plan Litterati trash pick-ups.

Meanwhile, Kirschner is collecting data about the items and their locations that could have any number of applications. It could inspire brands to create campaigns around recycling the products they distribute. It could show the importance of environmentally friendly packaging, and Litterati could help brands figure out how to manufacture that.

Litterati could help city governments determine better locations for trash cans, recycling bins and compactors or organize large scale cleanup efforts in their towns.

Kirschner is open to whatever direction the movement might take the fledgling business. More than either of his two prior startups, Litterati has taught him the power of getting an idea into the real world fast.

“We’re so weighed down by fear of someone not liking our idea or trying to make something perfect and not wanting to release it in the wild until we reach that point,” he said.

But by taking action and getting ideas out, he said, “You can learn and iterate and frankly, you can fail as fast as possible because you can figure out what’s working and what’s not.”

Laura Baverman is a journalist who spent eight years covering business for Cincinnati newspapers before moving to Raleigh.

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