People may be desensitized to the sight of litter on a riverbank or even the heaps of garbage bags collected during Lethbridge’s annual Coulee Cleanup. But a group of Lethbridge College students and their instructor are attempting to engage the public by telling the story of what that litter means to the environment.
The project began when Dr. Tali Neta, an instructor in the School of Environmental Sciences, was struck by the abundance of litter she saw while walking her dogs in a field on Lethbridge’s west side. She decided there had to be something she could do about it. “I thought I should contact the city and see if we can work together to educate people and bring awareness to the issue,” says Neta.
The City of Lethbridge and the Helen Schuler Nature Centre provided Neta with data collected between 2015 and 2019 from the annual Coulee Cleanup event. Neta then had students in her Geomorphology class use the data to create Story Maps that tell a narrative about the litter and the effect it has on the local ecosystem as their end-of-term project.
See the students' Story Maps below
“The students created beautiful Story Maps, which are a web application where you have a story on one side with text, photos and video links, and then a map on the other side,” explains Neta. “The story is linked, or related to the map, so it's a very interactive system. It can be made available to the public and is a great way to educate people.”
The maps take relevant data and case studies from around the world and combine them with local information to highlight how even small amounts of litter affect waterways, plant growth, animal populations and ultimately, the human population.
“My big takeaway is that it’s not getting any better,” says Cody Grasdal, a fourth-year student in the Ecosystem Management – Bachelor of Applied Science degree program. “There's a lot more urbanization and the littering problem isn't being solved, so it’s important to plan for the future. We are talking maybe 10 to 20 years from now that our garbage will be a huge issue. I think society is really desensitized to a lot of ecosystem issues, so it’s important to be blunt about it, and that's really getting through in these stories.”
Students presented their Story Maps to a representative from the Helen Schuler Nature Centre, the embedded librarian of this course, Constance Sheriff, the technician who arranged the GIS setup “behind the scenes”, Tyler Waldron, and other faculty members, as part of their term project assignment in the winter semester.
“Hopefully we can more deeply connect people to the surrounding ecosystems,” says Dayce Rhodes, a fourth-year student in the Ecosystem Management – Bachelor of Applied Science degree program. “We found some of these areas that were accumulating litter might not be the initial site of littering. It could be being blown by the wind or taken by the rainwater and accumulates in these natural areas, where it's kind of out of sight, out of mind. So, if we can increase that connection with the public, then we can work towards reducing the issue.”
Going beyond just a class project, the Story Maps are now available online and will be used by the Helen Schuler Nature Centre in its educational programming to help highlight the importance of people cleaning up after themselves and not leaving garbage behind or dumping it inappropriately.
“It was kind of a perfect collaboration, because the students looked at this data with fresh eyes, whereas I've been in it for several years now and tried to make sense of it without being able to devote a lot of time to this part of the project,” says Curtis Goodman, Helen Schuler Nature Centre resource development coordinator. “And their data maps have some amazing insights and comparisons with similar programs taking place around the world, which helped to provide context and helped me to see some of the trends that emerged from the data.”
Neta now plans to take this work beyond the classroom as part of a research project. She will collaborate with the creator of OpenLitterMap, an app that allows anyone in the world to take photos of litter and add it into a world map. The app has been designed to highlight the issue of litter around the globe in a gamified manner that encourages people to get involved. Neta plans to involve large numbers of people to map and track the litter found throughout Lethbridge and then upload their findings to OpenLitterMap.
“If we worked together, we could map all the world’s litter tomorrow – but we can start small,” says Seán Lynch, creator of OpenLitterMap. “We’re looking to build pockets of people and build the technology to bring more people on board and telling stories like this. Starting with something as simple as a college campus and tracking it over time can begin to tell a story and can even help to shape or show the effects of policy on litter. It can be a very powerful tool.”
The student work and upcoming research project are proactive steps Neta is taking to help solve the issue of litter in Lethbridge and beyond.
“The students did an amazing job on the Story Maps. They were very passionate about it and really interested,” says Neta. “The students tell the story, but also bring solutions because they’ve looked at what’s been done in other places in Canada and the world and compared it to the data from Lethbridge. They put a lot of time and effort into it and it shows.”
Those involved in the project say everyone can play a role in reducing litter. It obviously starts by ensuring all garbage and cigarette butts are properly disposed of, while further steps can include picking up as little as a doggy bag worth of trash while out on walks, or volunteering to join the annual Coulee Cleanup.