March 21st, 2018
Seán Lynch is on a mission to map even the tiniest piece of litter on earth to highlight a worldwide ecological emergency: the litter crisis.
To do so, the 29.year-old Cork-born entrepreneur has created a web app called Open Litter Map.
“I want to educate and empower society,” says Lynch. “People have these incredibly powerful data collectors [mobile phones], and they’re just passing by the problems that we have because the tool to fix them hasn’t been given to them.”
Lynch’s website allows users around the world to upload pictures of litter they have stumbled upon, geotag it to pinpoint the exact location, and add it to a global map.
The aim is to create the world’s most extensive database of litter, with mappers who upload data for seven days in a row receiving littercoins, a digital currency.
Sick of Looking at Plastic
The original idea for the website came from one of Lynch’s biggest annoyances: seeing plastic everywhere. “I used to walk to college every day and one day I just got sick of looking at plastic on the street,” he says.
Noticing his interest in the issue, one of Lynch’s lecturers introduced him to the concept of “walkability”, a measure of how friendly an area is to walking.
“I wanted to do something on illegal dumping, but he led me on a different path with walkability and dumping as part of that,” Lynch says. “I realised that there was micro-litter everywhere, every single step and I couldn’t escape it.”
After a stint as a Divemaster in Australia, Lynch fell in love with the ocean, and on returning home to Ireland the idea for the project starting to gain traction. “There is litter everywhere, oceans are ruined, everyone has a phone, I’m going to do Open Litter Map.”
At that point, Open Litter Map was still two Masters Degrees away from reality: one in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and one in Coastal and Marine Environments. Lynch also had to teach himself coding languages to get his website up and running.
His website has now mapped litter in places as far away as Pakistan and has very active contributors in the UK and the US.
Illegal Dumping in Ireland
While there are many groups in Ireland involved in collecting litter, Lynch says that data collection is rarely a part of their activities. “Picking up litter is fantastic, but if picking up is all we do that is all we’re ever going to do.”
“Picking up litter is great for the status-quo it allows business to continue dumping litter,” he says. And some companies in Ireland do not have the best reputation when it comes to illegal dumping.
Back in 2010, rubbish disposal firm Dublin Waste paid €60,000 in fines over illegal dumping in Co. Wicklow. The most recent high profile case of illegal dumping in Ireland took place in Donegal in 2017, when council inspectors found over 30,000 tons of waste buried or stored in sheds.
“If we want to educate society on how prevalent plastic and litter pollution is the only way to do it is with storytelling maps and open data that anyone can access including the local authorities so we can fix this once and for all,” Lynch says.
The Future of Open Litter Map
“Open data doesn’t generate any revenue so if I can get 200 people from around the world to say I think Open Litter Map is worth five Euros a month then I can comfortably work on this full-time,” he says.
“Most people don’t care, but a few people do, and they are my people. They’re the ones who keep submitting data and donate five Euros a month, and they are going to keep it going.”
Lynch has also co-written an academic paper on his project titled, Open Data on Plastic Pollution with Blockchain Rewards, which is set to be published in Open Geospatial Data, Software and Standards journal. He has also given a TEDx talk in Tallaght trying to introduce his idea to a broader audience.
To join the global community of litter mappers, visit www.openlittermap.com