Look and See the Litter With Litterati

by | Sep 14, 2020

Before the COVID-19 pandemic really took hold here in the U.S., most of us will remember a zero waste movement gaining traction. The city of Pittsburgh has a plan to move towards a zero-waste standard. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden has racked up accolades for its green and zero waste practices. Humane Action Pittsburgh has participated in this global movement with our “No Plastic Please” campaign.

The link between the reduction in single-use plastics and animal welfare may not be immediately clear to some, but HAP’s goal is to reduce harm to marine life impacted by plastic waste while also protecting drinking water and the environment for humans.

I can’t speak for everyone, but, for me, reducing my reliance on plastic has become a bit of an afterthought in the era of COVID-19. Since March, stores have discouraged or banned the use of reusable shopping bags, the bulk bins I used to frequent are emptied out or taped up, takeout is far more prevalent, and, sadly, other concerns have been taking up more and more of my mental and emotional real estate.

I even delayed participation in the Pittsburgh Summer 10K Litter Challenge, but, in July, when my partner and I moved from a suburban apartment in Allison Park to our new home in Pittsburgh’s Observatory Hill neighborhood, I started to notice how much litter accumulated on the sidewalks off busy roads near us. I finally downloaded Litterati, an app that allows users to document litter. At times, the aggregated data can be used to push for corporate or even policy-based changes.

After downloading the app, I noticed something. Even when I didn’t have my phone with me, I became more aware of the litter I saw–and I was surprised how prevalent it was!

The most startling part of the experience occurred when I was hiking in Ohiopyle State Park over Labor Day Weekend. Fern Cliff Trail is a favorite of mine because you can hear and see the incredible Youghiogheny River and Ohiopyle’s signature waterfall while hiking in a unique forested area.

Photo courtesy of Claire Kmetz 

Walking onto the Ferncliff Peninsula, hikers are greeted with a plaque indicating that the peninsula is a National Natural Landmark. The river gorge creates a microclimate that is quite uncommon in the region and home to many unique plants and animals. Us humans regularly use the river for water recreation, too, including swimming. The importance of preserving the purity of the land and water–for the sake of the environment broadly as well as humans and animals specifically–hit me hard on this particular occasion specifically because of how aware I had become of the prevalence of litter.

As we hiked, I kept a sharp eye out, and I noticed almost immediately a number of plastics, including small items like bottle caps and cigarette butts, as well as larger items like water bottles and, fittingly for Summer of 2020, a broken surgical mask.

Photo courtesy of Claire Kmetz 

I know that removing these items will have little impact on the overall health of the forest and the unique ecosystem on the peninsula. But the power of a tool like Litterati became salient to me as I realized that documenting this litter could, in fact, provide the data to hold companies responsible for the amount of litter their products contain, to generate or nurture the political willpower needed to enforce rules against litter, and to generally make people aware of the danger not only to unique and vulnerable animal species, but also more broadly to these cherished local landmarks and recreational attractions.

The Pittsburgh Summer 10K Litter Challenge ended on September 8th, but please continue to  join me in the looking out for litter with Litterati, and really seeing the litter around us–not just in our beloved natural sanctuaries, but also right in our own backyard where it can impact the lives of the birds, deer, and other animals we are fortunate enough to share our neighborhoods with.

And, if you haven’t already, check out HAP’s “No Plastic Please” page to find out even more ways you can protect marine life from the encroachment of plastics.


Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University.

Abhi Nadendla is a blogger at HAP and has been volunteering at the organization since late 2022. She is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and loves spending her free time helping out at animal shelters.

Hannah Lewis is a grant writer and blogger from Pittsburgh’s North Side who has been with HAP since 2020. In addition to writing and advocating for animals, she enjoys hiking, cooking plant-based meals, bouldering at her local climbing gym, and curling up with a good book and her long-haired cat, Freyja.

Kelly Frantz has recently joined the HAP family as a blog writer. She is passionate about animal protection and is excited to educate the community about animal welfare.