Drones, AI used to tackle litter in UK local authority first


Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council is partnering with the environmental charity Hubbub and McDonald’s to trial a unique approach to litter management which will see intelligence gathered from drone data to inform the future placement of bins, street cleansing schedules and behaviour change campaigns to encourage visitors to dispose of their litter responsibly.

The initiative will deploy new drone-based technology to help tackle the scourge of litter in what will be the most scientifically robust litter survey ever undertaken in the UK. The initiative is part of BCP Council’s £3.5million summer readiness preparations.

Funded by McDonald’s, AI will identify and categorise individual pieces of litter, to give unprecedented insight into what types of litter is being dropped where and when. The campaign will use drones, fixed cameras and mobile and vehicle technology to create detailed litter maps, identifying hot spots and building an understanding of how the litter is travelling.

The technology was used in the Italian town of Sorrento last summer, where it was hailed a huge success - enabling authorities to reduce litter by 45 per cent and cigarette butt waste by 69 per cent. This was done through communication campaigns with visitors and business owners and strategically placing new litter bins and ashtrays across the town, based on the data collected.

Insights into littering behaviour are vital to make the most of considerable budgets invested by UK councils to tackle litter. BCP Council will be able to use intelligence from the drone data to inform the strategic placement of bins, street cleaning schedules and engaging interventions designed by Hubbub to encourage the public to dispose of their litter responsibly.

The first drones flew over beaches, parks, high streets and open spaces last week. These were not surveillance drones but were in fact monitoring litter while the majority of lockdown restrictions are in place to show how clean our streets, parks and beaches can be if we care for the local area. 

The audit will be repeated in May as the weather improves and further lock down restrictions ease. This data will inform a series of litter-busting interventions over the course of the summer and a further survey will take place in July to assess the effectiveness of the actions taken. The data collated by Ellipsis regarding litter trends, hotspots and behaviour will also play a vital role in longer term BCP bin strategy.

Trewin Restorick, CEO and co-founder of Hubbub said: “We were really inspired by the impact of this technology which we’ve seen work so successfully in Sorrento. Basing behaviour change activity on real data will really help us maximise impact and we’re excited by what could be achieved. Litter continues to cause problems for authorities in every part of the country. We want to create a replicable campaign that can be used as a template for future projects in other locations. Collaboration is at the heart of this campaign, so we’re keen to get as many local businesses and community groups on board to play their part.”

Helen McFarlane, Senior Sustainability Consultant for McDonald’s, said: “We are thrilled to be funding this truly innovative campaign, along with some of our key packaging and drinks suppliers. Our teams have been carrying out litter patrols in our communities for nearly 40 years; this intervention is a real step-change allowing us to leverage technology and data to not only make clearing litter more impactful, but to help improve behaviour and encourage those people who do litter to act more responsibly. We are delighted to be collaborating with Hubbub and BCP Council on this campaign and want to encourage other businesses and groups to join us.”

Ellie Mackay CEO and founder of Ellipsis Earth said: “Bournemouth is a beautiful and much-loved location that is in critical need of littering data so we are thrilled to be able to deliver this UK-first smart survey, and to highlight the power of using advanced technology for environmental protection and behaviour change. The deep analysis of the data will provide recommendations to help keep litter levels within manageable levels this summer and beyond. We hope the public can also use our data to learn more about the impact of littering as well as seeing the direct impacts of their responsible actions.”

Soft drinks producer and McDonalds’ supplier Britvic is also funding the project along with two packaging suppliers.

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