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The Latest Alternative Fuel: Social Media

Harnessing the power of the people to help the environment.

Citizen scientists log backyard butterfly migration data online. Commuters reduce carbon footprints with car-sharing apps. Teens organize online petitions to protect endangered species. Today, anyone with a soft spot for planet Earth can hop online and make a difference for the environment using social media. Whether you are a leader or a joiner, opportunities abound to go green with social platforms.

Dreams of a litter-free planet

Out for a hike with his two young daughters, Oakland resident Jeff Kirschner walked past a bright red box of kitty litter lying in a stream. “Daddy,” said 4-year-old Tali, pointing to the trash with confusion, “that doesn’t go there!”

“You’re right,” agreed Kirschner, so they stopped and picked up the box and took it to a garbage receptacle. The view from a child’s eyes reawakened Kirschner’s own sensitivity to the litter problem. He began taking photos of discarded items he found on the ground, tagging them on the photo-sharing app Instagram, and then putting the objects in trash or recycling containers. The images were all assigned the hashtag #litterati, and soon family and friends joined in, picking up trash and photographing it, contributing to the growing collection Kirschner calls a “digital landfill.”

Then one day, a photo appeared on Litterati’s Instagram account showing a plastic wrapper lying in front of the Great Wall of China. That’s when Kirschner realized the collection of images represented the potential for something bigger, documenting a worldwide effort by individuals to clean up litter, one piece at a time. Using the geotag from each photo, he developed a map to show where people pick up garbage. He is hoping a combination bottom-up and top-down approach might help Litterati reach its vision for a litter-free planet. On one end, individuals are compelled to make a difference with small steps, documented to inspire others. On the other end, data can inform municipalities about where waste disposal options should be expanded, and companies will see how their product packaging impacts the planet.

“As more Litterati users begin tagging the type of trash they pick up, we have a growing body of data that gives us a better understanding of...product types,” explains Kirschner. 

In just one year, Litterati’s digital landfill has collected over 18,000 pieces of trash on Instagram. Kirschner appreciates the impact of social media for the movement. “Someone picks up a piece of trash, puts the photo on Instagram, then other people comment, the image becomes part of the photo gallery, it’s on the map, and now the person is part of a bigger community, which encourages individuals to do it again,” he says. “We have a real opportunity to build a platform that not only measures our own personal impact but unifies the movement under one umbrella. These actions are not isolated incidents—we are in it together.”

Twitter, memes and safe water

Environmental activist Emily Wurth uses social media both to keep herself informed and to inform others about safe drinking water policy around the United States. During her seven years with Food & Water Watch, she has seen exponential growth in the use of social media for organizations like hers. “We now have 79,360 likes on Facebook, and I remember we were excited when we hit 10,000,” says Wurth. “We use our blog plus social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest to engage people and to help get our message into the mainstream media.”

Wurth goes on Facebook to list events like rallies and meetings and to invite supporters to attend. In jurisdictions around the United States where people are working on safe water issues, she follows live Twitter feeds from local reporters attending the hearings. “Twitter is really popular among reporters,” says Wurth. “It’s a way to get access to information, but it also provides us with a forum to reach busy reporters.”

Creating memes—photos with simple slogans written across the bottom—has become another powerful method of harnessing social media for environmental action. Wurth cites a change on Facebook, where people share images more often than text, as a driver of this trend. The bumper sticker of the tech generation, a well-constructed meme goes viral fast, providing a key opportunity for organizations working to raise awareness about issues like safe water. Social apps like Food & Water Watch’s Tap Buddy rely on crowdsourcing to expand usability. Users input locations of water fountains to help encourage people to refill their own bottles with tap water rather than buy bottled water. When someone adds a location to the database, the app invites the user to share it on Facebook and Twitter, of course!

Climate change and citizen scientists

The Smart Citizen project, a crowdfunded idea expanded through Kickstarter, aims to employ the power of the people to help monitor the environment. Inexpensive sensor devices mounted in urban and suburban communities around the world are tracking air quality, temperature, light, noise, humidity and levels of pollutants nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. A multilingual online social network allows hosts to visualize their own data and compare to others. Creators of the program hope that widespread collection of crowdsourced environmental information, particularly in urban areas, will help scientists track climate change indicators in the future.


Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.