I think most of us are pretty disgusted by litter: potato chip bags, beer and soda cans, cigarette butts and candy wrappers not only make the prettiest areas look trashy, but none of them break down particularly quickly, which means that it's easy to dig up a 5-year-old butt at the beach or cut your foot on a half-rotted can that was left in a stream 10 years ago. (This happened to a friend of mine). There used to be plenty of anti-litter campaigns (I remember them from when I was a kid) though I don't see them as much these days — and judging from the kids in my neighborhood (they throw candy wrappers around like confetti while waiting for the bus), perhaps we need a cultural reminder. 

Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a doctoral student in information art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, has gone way beyond a trendy-cute ad campaign to get people to think twice about their littering; she has started putting profiles together based on the DNA evidence that slobs leave behind. Kind of creepy — and really awesome — all at the same time. 

According to a story on National Public Radio, "Dewey-Hagborg extracts DNA from these samples of trash and turns that information from code into life-sized 3-D facial portraits resembling the person who left the sample behind. She can code for eye color, eye and nose width, skin tone, hair color and more."

Because the DNA tells us "a very tiny subset of all of the things that we know about the entire mapping of the human genome," Dewey-Hagborg says, she uses plenty of artistic license to make up the rest of what the person might look like — meaning the resulting visages are truly more of an art project than a actual profile of what someone looks like. 

As an artist, Dewey-Hagborg isn't intending this as a way to target litterbugs for punishment, but more of an exploration into how what we leave behind — the garbage and detritus of our lives — really does matter, and maybe really does belong to us, in a very real way. That we are never entirely separate from the disposable garbage that we leave in the wake of our lives. 

Personally, I may use this story to scare the kids on my block though. I'm sick of picking up their garbage! Kids these days!

Related on MNN: What is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch?

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Litterbugs get profiled
A new art project uses DNA to get an idea of who's tossing butts and other litter.