Ground-breaking use of drones and AI shows how littering habits are polluting oceans

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Ground-breaking use of drones and AI shows how littering habits are polluting oceans

By Trewin Restorick 22nd June, 2021

What drones and AI are revealing about our litter habits

The most scientifically robust litter survey ever undertaken in the UK took place over May half-term using drone technology and AI, thanks to funding from McDonald’s and their suppliers (Britvic, Seda and Huhtamaki). The cutting-edge survey, undertaken by tech company Ellipsis Earth, took place over seven days across Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole and has provided unprecedented insight into the type of litter that’s being dropped, and where.

The headline findings from the research revealed that littering had increased by 454% compared with the amount dropped in the same area during the March lockdown. The top three most littered items were cigarettes, paper (such as receipts/napkins) and plastic fragments including corners of sweet wrappers and food containers.

The figures revealed changes to habits caused by COVID19. Surprisingly, PPE such as face masks only made up 0.7% of total litter but there was a significant increase in food sachets, which were more prevalent than plastic bottles. It also indicated which groups were likely to litter, with particularly high volumes of late-night, alcohol-related littering and family holiday items such as beach toys, juice bottles and wet-wipes.

The analysis also revealed hot spots for different types of litter. For instance, many cigarette butts were found at a railway crossing, revealing that some people have a smoke whilst waiting for the train barrier to open. Identifying these hotspots will enable Hubbub to site our award-winning cigarette ballot bins in the places where they are most needed.

Gaining further insights into the littering habits causing plastic pollution

The monitoring has illustrated how littering habits can contribute to plastic pollution in oceans and suggests the steps needed to stem this flow. For example, beachside cafes in the area sell take-away meals in polystyrene containers, which can be found as litter on the beach. These containers are rapidly attacked by seagulls, breaking them into small fragments which are washed into the water at high tide. Banning polystyrene packaging and introducing a deposit return scheme for reusable food containers could solve this problem.

There was a surprisingly high volume of take-away food items, particularly sauce sachets and napkins – many of which were unused. Take-away outlets in the area could address this by only handing napkins to those who request them and finding alternatives to sauce sachets.

The night-time economy generated high levels of littered bottles, cans and drug related items. Glass bottles constituted the heaviest amount of litter recorded. Hubbub will seek to tackle this with the world’s first ever Disco Bin which lights up and plays tunes at night when used, to entice revelers to use the bins and put an end to rubbish parties.

A surprising number of children’s toys were found littered on the beach. This indicates that there could be an opportunity to rent out buckets, spades, and other beach toys. A beachfront outlet offering a financial incentive for returning these items could provide a cheaper and convenient alternative to buying new beach toys for families on a day out.

A few other items were surprisingly high on the list. A significant amount of the plastic fragments consisted of torn-off corners of plastic sweets and snacks packaging. One area also had a high level of paper receipts, raising the question of whether retailers need to keep printing these.

Could disco bins and spoof stalls help curb litter?

Over the next few months, Hubbub will be working with the local authority using these insights to test different approaches to reduce littering. Initially, this will be a range of playful initiatives to make the area’s bins more engaging and noticeable; from the first ever disco bin that lights up and plays music, to bins where you can vote with your rubbish, and a pop-up Catch of the Day spoof fishmonger stall at some weekends through the summer. Signage will lead people to the next nearest bin if one is full and cigarette ballot bins will tackle cigarette litter hotspots. These initiatives will target three types of littering behaviour identified by the monitoring; ‘tidy littering’ where people leave litter near bins that are full, litter left by groups and cigarette littering.

In the longer term Hubbub will explore some of the structural changes that might be required such as a deposit return scheme for beach-side food containers, a beach toy rental scheme and encouraging local retailers to move away from commonly littered items such as sachets and receipts.

What’s next?

A follow-up survey in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole will take place in August to assess the effectiveness of the actions taken.

The survey which has generated this huge level of insight was undertaken by scientists from Ellipsis Earth who have previously used the drone technology in the Italian town of Sorrento, where it was hailed a huge success - enabling authorities to reduce litter by 45% and cigarette butt waste by 69%.

We’re thrilled to be able to deliver this UK-first smart survey in Bournemouth. We’re using drones, fixed cameras and mobile and vehicle technology to create detailed litter maps, identify hot spots and build an understanding of how the litter is travelling. The data we provide is not only highly accurate but also extremely detailed, allowing us to develop specific, targeted recommendations for BCP, Hubbub and McDonald’s to be able to focus their efforts with maximum effect. We have seen proven success of this approach around the world and we aim to demonstrate the power of this method for the BCP region as well as its potential to extend to other UK councils.

Ellie Mackay, CEO and founder of Ellipsis Earth

McDonald’s is committed to preventing litter in our communities, and we are delighted to be partnering on this innovative campaign. We’ve been collecting litter in the communities we serve for nearly 40 years, but we know that there’s a small minority of our customers who dispose of our packaging irresponsibly and we want to encourage them not to litter. We hope that this ground-breaking campaign will help encourage people across Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole to dispose of their packaging more responsibly so we can all enjoy the outdoors litter-free.

Helen McFarlane, Senior Sustainability Consultant for McDonald’s, on why they are backing the campaign

Hubbub will share the results of the final set of analysis and the impact of the different interventions in early autumn. In the meantime, if you would like more information on the analysis, please email

Where else are we tackling littering?

In rivers all across the UK! Check out Treasure Your River, our pirate-themed campaign protecting the oceans from land and river litter that washes out to sea. We have UK-wide litter picking events, pirate litter picking ships and more.

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