WSU Tri-Cities instructor leading litter intervention

Peter Christenson said he wanted to move to the Tri-Cities not just to teach art but because it would mean a change from the urban landscape he'd lived in most of his life.

"I was really excited about the access to nature and nature preserves," said the assistant professor of fine art and digital technology and culture at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

But when the Detroit native took a walk at Bateman Island in Richland during his first weeks in the area about a year ago, he got a different feeling about the area's natural splendor.

"We were really taken aback by all the litter," he said, noting the bait container wrappers, old fishing line and beer bottles scattered around the island.

The professor and his volunteers hope their community-based art intervention cleanup campaign, infused with social media, detailed maps and photography, will motivate people to pick up litter.

"If people understand the mission of the project, I think it could happen," said 22-year-old student Esther Flatau of Franklin County.

Christenson's experience at Bateman Island led him to start the Anti-Litter Mapping Project. He recruited students in fall 2012 to revisit the island with him. Not only did they leave with 30 trash bags full of litter, but also GPS data documenting where each piece was found along with photos and videos.

More recently, Christenson and some more students, including Flatau, cleaned up receipts, plastic shopping bags and even clothing on a strip of land near the intersection of Stevens Drive and Spengler Street in north Richland.

"The majority of what we saw was cigarette butts," said Flatau, who is studying digital technology and culture.

Christenson said his primary goal is cleaning up the area for everyone's enjoyment, but he's hoping to accomplish more than that. He said he wants everyone to feel they should clean up litter as part of their daily life wherever they are.

The professor plans to use the data he and others collect to drive a social campaign.

It would allow someone to upload a photo of trash they've found and will pick up, as well as map the location the litter was found. The public can't upload their information yet, but that's the eventual goal.

The data then can be used to track the history of the area based on the type and amount of trash picked up. The concept is part of social practice art -- the idea that multiple people, rather than an individual, create a work of art. In this case it's with photo galleries, video collections and maps of littering.

"It motivates change but also documents use of a space," Christenson said.

Flatau said the recent cleanup she helped with in north Richland did take longer than just picking up trash, as she and others also had to document the GPS location and photograph what was found. However, creating a social campaign means people can integrate it into their life, such as they have with social sites Twitter and Facebook.

Christenson said he's working on a smartphone application to tie into the project's website at www.littertrail.com/antilitter_map.html. He's also seeking funding to finance its development.

But until all the pieces come together, he and his volunteers will continue to collect more data and fuel the effort.

"We're talking about other places we can go," Flatau said. "Or maybe do a show of what we find."