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Putting a Face on Litter — Literally

Litter mistakes happen. How many times have I reached for a tissue in my pocket only to find that I must have unknowingly dropped it somewhere? How many times have I chased a tumbling gum wrapper on a windy day only to give up after a few yards?

(I still feel bad about that.)

So I’m willing to forgive mistakes, but I have zero tolerance for people who intentionally litter. And increasingly, so does a major city in China.

Hong Kong, a metropolis of more than seven million people, produces more than six million tons of trash every year. And it’s not just capacity that’s a problem — it’s attitude. Lisa Christensen, CEO and founder of the Hong Kong Cleanup, said: “Sadly, we suffer from a serious ‘pick up after me’ mentality, and this simply must change.”


From the Hong Kong Cleanup’s website:

Did you know… that in Hong Kong, every day, we throw away over 16,000 tons of trash – including an estimated 1,368,000 disposable plastic bottles, 1,000 tons of plastic bags and countless more tons of plastic wrapping and packaging. Our landfills are full, and we consume and throw away more than our city’s infrastructure and surrounding ecosystems can handle, jeopardizing wildlife, economies, and our own health and safety. It’s time we took responsibility for our actions.

The effort to change perception about waste is significant and ongoing. That’s why this year, the Hong Kong Cleanup decided to do things a little differently.

To mark their 15th anniversary, HKC partnered with Ecozine and The Nature Conservancy to launch a science-based initiative that puts a face on the issue of littering — quite literally.

After collecting litter samples from around the city, researchers used Snapshot™ DNA phenotyping to create “portraits” of the litterers. The portraits then appeared as posters in mass transit stations and bus shelters across the city, in addition to supporting social media and print ads. You can watch the video here:

Crazy, huh?

The unique campaign, developed by PR agency Ogilvy & Mather, raised more than public awareness about littering — it also raised criticism from people who resented being made to feel afraid to “get caught” littering.

Me, I can see it both ways. Threats don’t work for the long-term, but making someone feel ashamed of their actions can be a crucial — and lasting — first step to change.

And whether you agree or not the campaign certainly did what it intended, which was to get people talking. The next Hong Kong Cleanup Challenge, Zero Awareness Week, kicks off June 7, and I hope it’s their biggest turnout yet.

What do you think of this marketing campaign?



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