Thanks to DNA, the Faces of Litterbugs Are Being Put on Billboards

Think no one will know you’re the one throwing trash on the ground? Think again.
Apr 29, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Last fall, video of a Russian vigilante who followed people who threw trash on the ground, picked up their refuse, and chucked it back at them went viral across the web. But what happens when no one’s around to see—and shame—folks who toss their plastic soda bottles, discarded paper coffee cups, and take-out containers on the ground?

A new science-based antilittering campaign is taking away the anonymity Hong Kong residents who fling garbage on sidewalks and streets currently enjoy. The aptly named project, The Face of Litter, is using DNA found on discarded items—the saliva on a cigarette butt, or the semen in a condom—to reconstruct the face of the user. As you can see in the video above, the effort relies on Snapshot DNA phenotyping, which crosses a person’s genetic code with the demographic data of a particular neighborhood in order to generate a 3-D facial model.

Last year, a group of Penn State researchers revealed that they’d created a similar kind of DNA-based technology that could generate mug shots. Sure, it’s a little creepy and dystopian-seeming, which is why here in the United States, some privacy advocates are challenging this kind of use of DNA. Those activists would probably have a field day with this Hong Kong campaign, because the faces of folks who litter aren’t being sent to the police. Instead, they’re currently being displayed on advertising billboards in busy transportation hubs where everyone can see them.

Indeed, the campaign, which is a collaboration between Hong Kong Cleanup, Ecozine, and The Nature Conservancy, smartly takes advantage of Chinese ideas around shame. Given the cultural pressure not to “lose face,” the last thing anybody wants is to be embarrassed by seeing their visage on a billboard.

There’s a real need to get folks to stop throwing refuse on the streets of the Chinese territory. According to Hong Kong Cleanup, people there toss more than 16,000 tons of trash—including an estimated 1,368,000 disposable plastic bottles and 1,000 tons of plastic bags—on the ground every day. That garbage ends up being swept into sewage systems, where it pollutes the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea. Given that, let’s hope that the fear of being identified as a litterbug will spur residents to look for a recycling bin or garbage can.