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Aug 2018 | Data-Driven Decision Making


The persistent effects caused by the contamination of plastic are increasingly well known. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the seafood we eat, even our most protected areas are increasingly contaminated by the most common, robust, diverse, and abundant alien species of them all: plastica pollutia. To significantly advance our ability at tackling this, litter mapping is being developed as an advantageous, rewarding, and largely unexplored field of citizen science.

Smart Cities should embrace and actively prioritize the development of open data. Free and open data can be used by anyone for any purpose without permission or restriction. This is particularly important for plastic pollution because of its relationship with economic activity. Open data is a pre-requisite for the development and democratization of a healthy research community. Such a research community will be able to advance knowledge and discover innovative and cost-saving solutions for Smart Cities who wish to achieve transparency, foster socio-economic innovation, improve governance, civic pride, and accountability to ultimately resolve the effect that plastic is having on our environment.


I. plastica pollutia


Plastic didn’t exist until we wanted it to – making it an almost truly alien species. Plastic has remarkable properties; however, we are making a lot more than the planet is able to handle (~300 million new tonnes per year globally). Although versatile, this material is absolutely not a panacea for infinite economic growth. Without stringent regulation, management, enforcement, and general knowledge, there are evidently disastrous repercussions. Our inability to manage plastic has been so profound that this generations’ legacy is likely to etch plastic permanently into the biosphere. Without significant action, this situation is expected to continue to rapidly deteriorate as plastics degrade indefinitely in the oceans. In fact, much of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating around the upper layers of the ocean as of 2012[1] originate from the marine litter that has been degrading for several decades.

Extrapolating into the future is bleak, but it needs to be clear. In 2010, it was estimated that between eight to 12 million tonnes of plastic entered the oceans. With current trends, this figure is expected to continue to increase exponentially, potentially reaching approximately 70 million annual tonnes of plastic entering the ocean every year by 2025.[2] The majority of this pollution (67 percent to 90 percent) has been reported to originate from just 10 to 20 rivers, which are believed to be primarily located in South-East Asia and Africa.[3]


II. Call to Action


While these figures may be correct, focusing exclusively on the primary results of these studies (which are some of the most commonly cited and authoritative references on plastic pollution) may distract people from identifying and reinventing local standards, expectations, and inefficiencies. There is still 10 to 33 percent of plastic entering the rivers from elsewhere and each of us has just as much responsibility to resolve this as anyone else.

In lieu of detailed geospatial information, traditional approaches have made inferences about how much plastic is going into the ocean based on population and waste management metrics. Not only do the authors recognize that there are large uncertainties with these figures because of a lack of data (which is never reported on in the media), but these approaches do not appropriately characterize contemporary anthropogenic litter, which is everywhere. If we want to address plastic pollution, then we need to act locally with an open, interoperable and shared global perspective.


III. A Paradigm Shift


To transition into a circular economy, our cultural and geospatial relationship with plastic needs a transformative paradigm shift. This is already underway, thanks to the sharing of information across social media and because of publicly funded documentaries such as the BBC’s Blue Planet series. Subsequently, there is increased demand for circular products, services, and businesses. The consumption of single-use plastic items is becoming less popular and this is leading to positive and sustainable economic growth, jobs, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Consumer behaviour and expectations are advancing towards zero-waste, and businesses can use this opportunity to pioneer and capitalize on the winning side of history, or stagnate into recession and keep the problem going.

Increased awareness promotes innovation and more sustainable economic activity. This should be nurtured and fully embraced as these shifts in the general public consciousness lead to a more attractive, educated, and a healthier society that incurs less costs including both economic and personal (eg. mental health). Smart Cities can foster the development of such economic ecosystems simply by facilitating knowledge on the state of plastic pollution. Citizens must not be restricted from access to knowledge; the smartest cities will fully embrace and encourage the development of open data, as this will advance knowledge, research, and solutions significantly by allowing unrestricted access to scientific investigation.


iv. litter mapping


By mapping plastic pollution, we can communicate and resolve it in new and interesting ways. However, by taking a step further and making data accessible, we can advance and democratize the production of knowledge and encourage the development of litter mapping as a new and exciting field of citizen science.[4] This has the potential to create new instruments to implement and evaluate more informed policy, improve the location and efficacy of public services (such as bins, ashtrays), and even tweak social deprivation indices to more appropriately allocate resources.

For example, over the last two years, a colleague and I have been mapping the spatial distribution of drug-related litter in Cork and Dublin to inform the location of and evaluate the introduction of Ireland’s first medically supervised injection center (and various other types of services). However, because public access to geospatial information of the location of these activities might result in the increased stigmatization of already marginalized communities, we have given authoritative clients ownership of this data so that they can make the most locally-relevant decision on how best to use this data (visit for more information on this project). Drug-litter mapping is an exciting subset of litter mapping science with significant implications for NIMBY-ism and the introduction of contentious services.

For coastal cities, terrestrial litter mapping can even bridge the land-sea divide and encourage greater participation in decision-making processes such as Marine Spatial Planning, which is often challenged by a lack of community participation. Smart cities should adopt global-thinking systems that enable data interoperability and advance cross-city research, as knowledge development will benefit all. has been developed independently to enable anyone to map and produce the highest possible quality open citizen science data on plastic pollution anywhere. To incentivize the production of open data, OpenLitterMap applies blockchain mining principles to citizen science for the first time and rewards users with crypto-tokens (Littercoin) for doing the work. As cryptocurrencies are typically permission-less, the possibilities for Littercoin are endless. Smart Cities and interested stakeholders now have a hook to reward citizens for producing open data that will improve services, educate society, and reduce costs. Paying people to pick up litter is not new, as millions are spent every year on cleanup services. With a potential monetary incentive, it could enable the most rapid cleanup and production of open data the world has ever seen and probably get a good picture of the world’s litter in as little as 15 minutes if people were incentivized enough to do it.


V. Conclusion


Plastic pollution was first recognized to have a global distribution in the oceans as early as 1975. However, our response has been slow because access to knowledge was restricted. If we had been more proactive and honest about the state of plastic pollution, future generations could have enjoyed a much greater quality of life. We cannot afford to continue restricting access to knowledge on plastic pollution. Only with transparent information can we responsibly and appropriately respond to, characterize, and mitigate the deleterious effects of plastica pollutia.

Smart Cities should consider allocating a proportion of their litter and waste management budget into proactively financing the development of open data. This will reduce costs by advancing knowledge, educating society, improving services, and reducing a dependency on wasteful products, services, and potentially proprietary datasets. We can redefine our relationship with waste and transition into a circular economy, but we are going to need to advance our geospatial knowledge of plastic pollution and there is no better and more honest way of doing so than by facilitating and democratizing research.


SEÁN LYNCH began researching litter in 2011 as part of a Dissertation to achieve a B.A. in Geography. One M.Sc. in GIS & Remote Sensing and one M.Sc. in Coastal & Marine Environments later, he launched and after teaching himself how to code.

[1] Eriksin, M., Lebreton, L.C.M., Carson, H.S., Thiel, M., Moore, C.J., Borerro, J.C., Galgani, F., Ryan, P.G., Reisser, J. (2014). Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE. Vol. 9(12), e111913.
[2] Jambeck, J.R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T., Perrman, M., Andrady. A., Narayan, R., Law, K.L., (2015)., Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean., Science.,
[3] Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F., Sanite-Rose, B., Aitken, J., Marthouse, R., Hajbane, S., Cunsolo, S., Schwarz, A., Levivier, A., Noble, K., Deblejak, P., Maral, H., Schoeneich-Argent, R., Brambini, R., Reisser, J., (2018)., Evidence that the great Pacific garbage patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Nature Scientific Reports., Vol. 8, Article 4666.
[4] Lynch, S., (2018)., – Open Data on Plastic Pollution with Blockchain Rewards (Littercoin)., Open Geospatial Data, Software, and Standards., 3:6.