From big data to creative ‘binfrastructure’: new ideas for tackling litter

As we’ve previously reported, litter is a big and expensive problem for the UK’s local authorities. A 2015 report by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee put the annual cost of cleaning up litter in England at around £850m. Litter also generates strong emotions. Research by Populus has found that 81% of people are angry and frustrated by the amount of litter lying all over the country.

The CLG committee and the UK government have put forward a range of proposals for tackling litter. But at home and overseas local authorities and the third sector have been looking at inventive ways to keep our streets clean.

 Philadelphia’s data-driven litter index

Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet launched a digital tool to help catalogue the type and location of litter in the city’s neighbourhoods.

The Litter Index provides a full picture of the different types of waste in each of the city’s neighbourhoods, as well as recording the incidence of litter during different weather conditions. Using tablets, city workers record how much waste they’re seeing in their neighbourhoods, take photos and give ratings. The information can then be used to devise a plan for cleaning up litter in different parts of the city, and to pinpoint where resources are needed.

The Philadelphia plan is ambitious, but, as Nic Esposito, the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Director says: “If we’re not changing infrastructure and attitudes, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

 Edinburgh’s intelligent litter bins

New technology has been undergoing tests by the City of Edinburgh Council to measure how full litter bins have become and provide alerts via mobile when they reach capacity.

Sensors positioned inside the bins use ultrasonic technology to measure how full a bin has become. The data is then transmitted to notify the council’s waste management system when a bin needs emptied. The system can also help the council to spot fly tipping when there is sudden spike in the results, and a heat sensor detects fires inside the bin.

During the initial pilot project, collections in areas fitted with the new bins increased by 24% on average, and some collections quadrupled in frequency. The data from the sensors will be used to provide reports on waste generation patterns and can help in planning the most efficient routes for litter bin collections.

Driving litter underground

A growing number of European cities have invested in underground collection units in an effort to make their streets less cluttered.  In the Slovenian capital of Ljulbljana, these units are located around the city centre, with different receptacles for paper, glass, and packaging. In addition, residents of the city have access cards which open receptacles for organic and other specialist waste types, which in turn determines the level of their monthly waste management bill. Separation of waste in this way drives down the cost of managing it, and makes recycling much easier.

In the UK, Cambridge City Council has also taken an interest in subterranean waste units. Steel chutes have been set into the pavement with the aim of replacing thousands of wheelie bins. Residents have corresponding bins for their kitchens, which the city council believes will help create a sustainable living space.

Once completed, the 150-hectare site will have 450 underground recycling and general waste banks across 155 locations.

Thinking outside the bin

Environmental charity Hubbub has examined research and examples from around the world to develop a catalogue of creative and playful ideas for tackling litter effectively. Among the suggestions are:

  • an open-air gallery featuring local people to raise awareness of personal responsibility for waste management;
  • flashmobs to cheer on people who pick up litter and put it in the bin;
  • brightly-coloured bins that draw attention to litter campaigns; and
  • ‘talking bins’ that reward users with belches or coughs.

Hubbub has not confined its efforts to urban waste. Earlier this year, the charity unveiled a campaign targeting countryside litter. A “trashconverter” van toured the Forest of Dean, accepting trash, rather than cash, in exchange for flowers and hot drinks.

Final thoughts

As the Populus survey demonstrates, litter has a negative impact on how people view their own neighbourhoods. At the same time, as the recent Blue Planet 2 programme highlighted, our litter can have terrible effects on the natural environment and on birds and marine life, both in our own coastal waters and in oceans thousands of miles away.

Data, technology and behavioural insights all have important roles to play in tackling the blight of litter. Unusual initiatives, such as those employed in Philadelphia, Edinburgh and Cambridge, as well as Hubbub’s inventive ideas, are worth exploring if they can make an impact on human behaviour, and contribute to the conservation of the natural world.


If you found this article interesting, you might also like to read our previous blogs:

Talking rubbish: the never-ending problem of litter on Britain’s streets

Throwaway lines: poets celebrate the “hideous beauty” of landfill and the unsung heroes of waste management

One thought on “From big data to creative ‘binfrastructure’: new ideas for tackling litter

  1. Pingback: Walk this way- the benefits of walking for people and cities | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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