There is no denying that COVID-19 has changed the entire world. The global pandemic has affected human interactions, the economy, healthcare, the education system, how government operates, how we shop, basically everything. COVID-19 has even had an impact on the environment, both positive and negative. In June of 2020, a team of researchers looking at how COVID-19 would affect wildlife, coined the term “anthropause” which describes how human (anthro) activity has been put on pause, specifically travel. This decline in daily and holiday travel has led to decreased air pollution and a reduction in the loss of fossil fuels. On the flip side, the pandemic has also led to an increase in litter and cigarette smoking.
In many communities, it has become almost impossible to walk outside and not see COVID-19 related waste discarded on the ground. With the need to wear masks in public spaces, many opt for the convenience of disposable masks. It has become an ugly habit for some to improperly dispose of these masks, leaving them on the ground instead of a recycling or trash bin. Along with the plentitude of disposable masks littering sidewalks and roadways, is the abundance of disposable plastic gloves or mini bottles of hand sanitizer. Perhaps even more present than littered PPEs are piles of cigarette butts. The stress, anxiety, and boredom of quarantine have seen smoking rates nearly double over the last year.
When lockdown restrictions were lifted in England, the seaside community of Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole (BCP) saw thousands of tourists flocking to their beaches last June. In the wake of the influx of people spending time outside, there was an even greater increase in ground litter. As vaccines roll out and coronavirus numbers decrease, BCP expects to have even more visitors this coming summer. Earlier this year, the BCP Council met to discuss how to promote a Greener, Cleaner, Safer community. Leader of the Council, Councillor Drew Mellor, said that some of the first steps the council would initiate would be to begin planting the town’s goal of 10,000 trees before the end of 2021 and invest in training officers for addressing anti-social behaviors. “We really want our residents to feel proud to live in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole,” Mellor said. “The launch of the Cleaner, Greener, Safer campaign is a great starting point, but we know there is still a lot of work to do.”
To help clean up litter, BCP is taking a cue from a study carried out in Sorrento, Italy that used drones to identify ground waste last summer. According to numbers released from the study, the drones helped reduce ground litter by 45% and cigarette butt waste by 69%. The litter-reducing drone project will be of no cost to BCP. It is being funded by a joint charity through McDonald’s and Hubbub. A statement released by the BCP Council states, “Cutting-edge technology will identify and categorize individual pieces of litter, to give unprecedented insight into what types of litter are being dropped where and when.” The data collected by the drones will help BCP plan where to place additional trash bins and when to increase garbage collection.
The trash identifying project is the brainchild of Ellie Mackay’s Ellipsis Earth. As explained on their website, “Drones take several thousand images when surveying the length of a beach, river or ocean. Artificial intelligence software then blends multiple photos into a master image for our enhanced geospatial mapping.” The software then identifies with a 95% rate of accuracy the types of trash within the drone images. As a scientist, filmmaker, extreme environment drone pilot, and global ambassador for Women in Tech, Ellie’s vision “is to create an integrated ecosystem for environmental change, through global research, education, exploration, and creative media,” as stated in her bio.
BCP welcomed Ellipsis Earth to scan their beaches, parks, and high streets in mid March 2021. With lockdown restrictions still in place and litter at a minimum, the data collected by the drones will serve as a baseline for what typical community trash levels are. Ellipsis will then return in May as restrictions are lifted and again in July when BCP expects to be at its peak tourist season. “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.,” Ellie said. “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.” The global community has faced tremendous changes over the last year. With drones, we can now react positively to some of these changes.