Laurie Rager one of the 15 collectors scans the terrain below her feet for garbage. Photo by Scott Ball.
Laurie Rager picks through plastic waste along the San Antonio River during Basura Bash, an annual event where the community cleans up San Antonio waterways. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In conversations with local leaders, litter often tops the list of concerns in their communities. Litter is a pressing issue, so getting people to engage with the environmental pollution they see on their streets could help increase awareness of the pollution they often don’t see but that still greatly impacts their life, such as air pollution and carbon emissions.

With one of San Antonio’s most effective environmental clean-up events coming up this weekend, new technology coupled with community buy-in present an opportunity to supplement that effort and make a more continuous and lasting impact.

I recently learned about Litterati, a free mobile app that helps users collect data on litter in their community. Before properly disposing of litter, users can take a picture, include a geolocation and time stamp, tag the photo in order to categorize the piece of litter (plastic, glass, bottle, bag, etc.), and even list the product brand.

This technology presents us with an opportunity to tackle our litter problem as a community by turning environmental activism into a game that inspires sustainable solutions. Geolocations identify problem areas, while keyword tags shed light on which products are most commonly improperly discarded. Sharing the collected data with companies, nonprofits, advocacy groups, and government organizations could lead to long-term strategies and policies that foster clean communities.

Once more people use the app, we can all become empowered to use the data we’ve collected to inform how to prevent litter from ending up in our streets, parks, schools, and other public spaces.

This past weekend I tried out the Litterati app at Culebra Creek Park on the far West Side. In less than 30 minutes (you can check the time stamps) I collected, tagged, and disposed of 46 pieces of litter. The leading category of litter I tagged was plastic products, followed by cigarette butts.

I also found one empty whiskey bottle. With enough data on alcohol litter, San Antonio Park Police could gain insight on where illegal consumption of alcohol is occurring in city parks.

While I mostly collected litter along trails, I spotted a tire off in the woods and went in for a closer look and found eight more. I wasn’t prepared to transport tires on this trip, so I didn’t log them in the app. But using the app opened my eyes to the extent of a used tire waste problem in a place I hadn’t imagined there would be one.

Mario Bravo found eight tires discarded in the woods at Culebra Creek Park. Credit: Courtesy / Mario Bravo

In fact, I started noticing a lot more trash. Now that I was actively looking for litter, I began to see it in places I hadn’t noticed it as much before. Using this app turned cleaning up a park into a game for me and in less than 30 minutes increased my awareness of our city’s litter problem.

This Saturday is San Antonio’s annual Basura Bash, the largest single-day waterway cleanup in Texas. At last year’s event, 2,177 volunteers collected more than 27 tons of trash. Imagine what we could do if we were to collect data that showed us exactly what type of litter was picked up and where.

Even if you aren’t participating in Basura Bash, you can still download the Litterati app and use it in your neighborhood or around town. As of last Sunday, there were more than 2.4 million Litterati users worldwide. The top two users each collected more than 10 times as much litter as I did that day at Culebra Creek Park.

As of last weekend, I was the only person who had used Litterati in the San Antonio area, but I’m hoping that will change. I have created a Facebook page where San Antonio Litterati users can share not only their experiences, but also our policy ideas for how we might reduce the amount of litter in our community. Users can create their own club on the mobile app and then compete against clubs from other neighborhoods, churches, schools, or places of employment in the area. On any given day, users can host their own mini-Basura Bash in their part of town.

Litter and other forms of pollution are problems that affect us all. Technology that makes pollution visible or draws our attention to it can empower us so we can together reduce or eliminate these health and environmental problems. I look forward to a cleaner, healthier San Antonio in the not-too-distant future.

Mario Bravo is San Antonio's District 1 councilman.