What’s the future? Addressing the Global Plastic Pollution Problem through Blockchain Technology

The Global Plastic Pollution Problem

Have you noticed that you don’t always receive a straw in your drink at restaurants anymore? Recently, heightened attention has been drawn to the problem of plastic pollution through the movement of banning plastic straws. The movement has brought attention to our everyday choices, drawing focus to just how many plastics the average consumer handles on a regular basis. Plastics have become an integral part of our daily lives-be it our morning coffee, our new headphones, or the container of fruit bought for the week, so many of our everyday wants and needs are packaged in plastics! And it gets harder not to use it at all. Roughly 309-330 million tons of plastics are produced annually on a global scale. Much of these plastics are not recycled, with as much as 22-43% of plastics being disposed of in landfills. Plastics are rapidly accumulating in oceans; collectively, they are one of the most serious threats to the health of marine ecosystems. It is estimated that in 2010 alone, about 9-13 million tons of plastic and other debris entered into the oceans. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is a testament to this problem as it currently covers an area of over a square mile and weighs about 88,000 tons.

The plastic pollution problem is one of massive proportions and requires a solution of equal scale to combat it. Combating plastic pollution comes down to identifying both its original production source and locations that have increased potential to transfer plastic to the oceans. Enter the combination of big data and blockchain technology. An organization known as the OpenLitterMap Foundation encourages citizens of all ages to help identify plastic pollution in an effort to combat this massive problem.

How Can Technology Help?

Previously, data like where plastic was produced, who produced it, and where it was accumulating in the environment and the ocean was collected by significant labor and time-intensive methods that made it difficult to compile the data into a global assessment. These challenges limited the effectiveness of solutions to the plastic problem to date. Technology changes this. Now, this process can be sped up and applied on a grander scale.

What is OpenLitterMap and Littercoin?

OpenLitterMap Foundation is a non-profit organization launched in April 2017 that rewards users for generating open data, available for anyone to use, on litter that they encounter. It is the first of this type of project to reward contributors with a blockchain token that they call Littercoin. The main type of open data collected is geospatial data: where are the locations people are stumbling upon the waste?

Currently, OpenLitterMap is web-based with a mobile app in development that asks citizens globally to assist in tackling our plastic problem by awarding Littercoin tokens. With the current setup, one Littercoin is awarded for every 100 images successfully verified in a row. All submitted data have been manually verified by a small team of trained volunteers; next steps include developing a trusted database that can train machine-learning algorithms in order to make the manual verification easier. To encourage use, contributors receive 100 Littercoin for being the first to upload from a Country, 50 Littercoin for first from a State, and 25 Littercoin for each new City. To date roughly 8,200 photos have been submitted, reporting roughly 28,000 pieces of  litter from over 150 contributors.

A map displaying some of the different locations around the world where data has been collected thus far as part of OpenLitterMap. To see the locations of all 150 contributors, zoom in to the different locations on their interactive map. Source: OpenLitterMap.com
Next Steps and Potential Outcomes

As the project is still at its nascent stage, monetary value or general utility has yet to be defined for Littercoin, but the coins can be traded with others who value them. For example, if there is a business that supports the work being done by data contributors, it could offer a reward, such as a cup of coffee or store discounts, in exchange for Littercoin. Littercoin could also be used in other ways: perhaps by local governments as a tax incentive, or access to recreational spaces at special hours, or provide disadvantaged communities with greater access to goods and services. With such a monetary incentive, it has the potential to incentivize rapid collection on a global scale not previously seen.

Currently, the OpenLitterMap Foundation is relying solely on crowdfunding contributions and looking to develop a model to continue the project’s sustainability. The foundation is also looking to shift the cost to the sources of pollution (e.g. corporations) by using OpenLitterMap as a mechanism for companies to improve their image and social responsibility.

However, the global plastic pollution problem poses costs too significant for communities to ignore, and there is significant potential in combining technological, socio-economic, and collective innovation to address this problem on a global scale for the benefit of all.

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Katelyn Szura

I am currently completing my Masters in Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Rhode Island. My research focuses on examining how nitrogen inputs affect greenhouse gas fluxes from salt marshes, ultimately linking this work to how it impacts carbon storage in coastal wetlands. When not knee deep in marsh mud I enjoy running, hiking, sailing, and spending time with my pup, Bailey.

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