Dr. Natalie Hallinger

Dr. Natalie Hallinger, of Beverly, demonstrates a device that can pick up litter and take a photo of the garbage as she participates in the “5K by May” litter pickup challenge. Hallinger is working with the Beverly Area Planning Association, Morgan Park Beverly Hills Business and Association and 19th Ward officials in hosting the challenge, which seeks to pick up 5,000 pieces of litter before the end of April. (photo courtesy of BAPA)

As a behavioral scientist, Dr. Natalie Hallinger works to make an impact on large groups of people and how they experience the world around them.

To make an impact locally, she is now teaming up with the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA), Morgan Park Beverly Hills Business Association and 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea’s office to host a litter pickup challenge throughout April.

The “5K by May” challenge invites residents to pick up 5,000 pieces of litter by April 30.

Hallinger, of Beverly, works for Litterati, a company that collects litter data. Participants in the challenge can use the Litterati smartphone application to track how much litter has been collected.

“Eradicating litter is great—fantastic, really,” Hallinger said. “What truly matters the most to me is showing people what influences human behavior so we can apply effective strategies to change it. For example, there is no such thing as an evil, persistent litterer who hates the planet and trashes every place they visit. That person doesn’t exist. There are no demographics that predict littering except a slight tendency of young people to litter more often than older people. Research shows that the condition of the place you’re at is one of the strongest predictors of littering. If that place is in disrepair, looks uncared for, doesn’t have accessible trash bins, or seems unimportant, then more people are likely to litter. However, if that same group of people visits a place that is aesthetically pleasing, looks well cared for, has enough reachable trash bins or seems like people there have a sense of ownership, then those people are much less likely to litter there.”

Hallinger connected with BAPA late last year through a local Facebook group. BAPA decided to host the challenge in April, when it annually hosts spring clean-up events, and because Earth Day is April 22.

BAPA Community Outreach Liaison Cathriona Fey said the organization has recently focused more on environmental sustainability efforts. Last year, because of the pandemic, BAPA wasn’t able to host its Clean and Green event, a day of picking up litter around the neighborhood.

However, “5K by May” might be better because it runs for an entire month.

“We came into 2021 wanting to bring back some of those environmental initiatives,” Fey said. “When we saw this, it was like, ‘This could be a great option,’ especially when we still weren’t able to really get together as a group. Being able to use technology, you can still feel connected and still have an impact while being safe.”

To participate, people can download the Litterati application for free, then join the local challenge by entering a code of 5KBYMAY.

Participants can upload photos of litter onto Litterati, which tracks where litter is being picked up, what material it is made of and other statistics. Technology on the application can note which brand produced a piece of litter such as a Styrofoam coffee cup.

As of press time, the challenge had brought in 346 pieces of litter with 65 people participating; Amanda Gomez had picked up over 100 items to top the leaderboard. Organizers hope upcoming promotions and events will boost those numbers.

Prizes will be awarded to the top participants.

“I think our goal isn’t to point fingers or blame,” Fey said. “It’s to show people we’re a community that cares about our neighborhood.”

Mapping the data, she said, will provide insight as to why litter might be a problem in a particular area—perhaps because trash cans weren’t available, which can be addressed.

She’s thankful that several associations and local leaders are supporting the challenge.

“It’s a community-wide effort,” Fey said. “It’s not just neighbors; it’s not just businesses—it’s everybody.”

Hallinger admitted she doesn’t exactly enjoy picking up litter—but she loves collecting and analyzing the data.

She’s happy, then, to present that data, whether it’s numbers or photos, to the powers that be in order to bring long-lasting change.

“When people record data, we can use that data over and over again,” Hallinger said. “We can use it … to tell the city of Chicago what our litter problem looks like, exactly.

“And we’ve got the receipts to back it up.”

For more information, visit litterati.org.