Cleaning Up Trash, One Country at a Time

February 14, 2011

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The Let's Do It! project started out in 2008 in Estonia. The idea was to mobilize an enormous volunteer workforce to go out and clean up an entire country's illegally dumped litter in just one day. A video describes the original effort, which mobilized 50,000 volunteers to pick up and transport 10,000 tons of garbage on May 3, 2008. Organizers enlisted many well-known Estonians, who volunteered their time to participate in the PR effort, and also made significant use of Facebook.

Soon after, neighboring countries Latvia and Lithuania developed similar projects. To date, 12 Let's Do It! projects have taken place in nine countries, involving 1.3 million volunteers.

A map showing the location of Let's Do It! projects to date, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Romania, Portugal, Slovenia and two in India, in New Delhi and Bangalore.

GIS plays an integral role in these efforts. Using mobile phones, volunteers map the location and photograph garbage stashes. This information is integrated and visualized using Google Earth and a combination of open source geospatial tools to help organize logistics for the trash collection teams.

Ahti Heinla, IT team leader, was part of the initial project team, and answered some questions about the project.

Ahti Heinla, IT team leader for Let's Do It!

Directions Magazine (DM): What was the impetus for the "Let's Do It" project?

Ahti Heinla (AH):
It all started in 2008 in Estonia when a couple of friends got together and thought how to make the country cleaner. We ended up organizing the largest civic action in the history of the country, with 3% of the population coming out one fine Saturday to clean. But in the process, we realized the main cleaning we are doing is in people's heads - we are making them think about littering and waste, and change their behavior with that.

DM: What are some of the results? How many countries have been involved?

To date, these cleanups have happened in nine small countries, with 1.3 million volunteers in total. For example, Portugal had 100,000 volunteers, Slovenia had 270,000. In most countries the celebrities, politicians, etc. have been cleaning, and the organizers got presidential awards for it. So these have been fairly big events.

Last summer, Delhi (the capital of India) did cleanups with 50,000 volunteers. For India this is a small figure, they are just starting out. Next one up is Brazil, which will start cleanups in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the next few months.
DM: What have you learned in the process of rolling out these projects?

We have learned that a small group of volunteer organizers can effectively make the whole population join in to a good cause. It requires a lot of skill, know-how and determination, but you can do it.
DM: What technology are you using, and what technology challenges have you faced? What kinds of solutions have you implemented?

My own background is in Internet startups - I was a founding engineer at Skype and several other startups. So I approached the problems with technological solutions, even though waste itself has little to with technology. We ended up creating the digital waste map. We also had mapping software for mobile phones, so that untrained people were able to take photos of litter with GPS-enabled phones and these data were uploaded to our map in real-time.

We also used GIS in planning cleanup logistics - determining optimal locations for intermediate waste storage points and planning trips of large trucks carrying waste. Logistics was important to get right. For example, in Estonia we had to move 10,000 tons of waste during one weekend – with essentially just volunteer truck owners working in their spare time.

The current software we are building for global use is open source and relies on OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, Drupal [a content management system] and geographic data modules for Drupal. The software we built for the Estonian cleanup in 2008 was using PostgreSQL, its PostGIS extension and Google Earth. We loved PostGIS, but decided to switch to Drupal because it is a popular extensible framework and it is easier to find developers for it all over the world.

DM: How are these projects funded?

Most of the funding has been from state funds in countries starting cleanup. Governments have been extremely happy with our actions -- it boosts civic society and the costs are obviously much lower than
doing the same cleanup commercially.

Funding for popularizing this globally has come from Estonian 2011 state budget -- it's not a lot, but it's a start. We are currently looking for private funding to complement this and match European Union funding
for which we have applied.
DM: What's next for you?

We are taking the action global. So far it is nine countries, but by 2012 we will have many more countries on board. Russia just joined up. Are you crazy enough to organize it in your country or state? Contact us and see how we can work together! Interested people can register themselves [via Facebook] for a meetup in countries where there is no such cleanup organized yet. So we are using it as a tool to get more country-level or regional-level organizers.

DM: What advice would you give GIS professionals who want to be involved in non-profit, aid work?

The main advice is that there is, in fact, some volunteer work where GIS knowledge is useful. Our project is about cleaning litter, even though cleaning traditionally has little to do with Internet technology. But as you can see, almost any project can be enhanced to take advantage of expert know-how. In our case, the digital waste map has been invaluable in raising awareness about cleanups, as it makes the litter problem visible and people love to look at maps.  

In this cleanup project, we developed a Global Waste Map, which is a Wikipedia-style editable map of world waste/litter. It currently has 5,000 waste/litter photos. Most of these have been harvested automatically from Flickr and Picasa, and photos evaluated, waste quantity assessed, etc. from these photos using crowdsourcing methods.

The Global Waste Map is an editable map of world waste. Red dots are large-format waste, yellow dots are plastics/metals/packaging, green dots are paper, and blue are other types of waste.


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