Now that doggy DNA sampling has poop-scoop scofflaws in many communities (the aptly named London borough of Barking and Dagenham being one of the latest) thinking twice about their rather foul actions, a new campaign in rubbish-plagued Hong Kong has rampant litterbugs shaking in their proverbial boots in fear of a good, old-fashioned public shaming.

Called “The Face of Litter,” the campaign was launched on Earth Day — a tag-team effort between the Nature Conservancy, Ecozine and Hong Kong Cleanup in partnership with global marketing behemoth Ogilvy & Mather — to raise awareness of littering's "epidemic" status in Hong Kong.

Leading up to Earth Day, an unsightly sampling of refuse (think: cigarette butts, coffee cups and even used condoms) strewn on Hong Kong’s streets was collected (gloves were involved, natch) and carted off to a lab where any lingering genetic materials left behind on the pieces of trash was lifted and analyzed. From there, “visual representations” of each offending litterbug were created using SnapShot, a DNA phenotyping service provided by Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs that’s often employed to help criminal investigators solve decidedly more serious crimes.

While the technology is unable to provide an age of the trash-chucking perps, the digital portraits were further fleshed out — and assigned an approximate age — based on the type of litter that the DNA was attached to and where exactly it was collected. For example, a used condom tossed in an alleyway behind a nightclub most likely wasn't put there by an 85-year-old woman. But that coffee cup discarded next to a park bench ... perhaps it was. 

On Earth Day, the composite images of these litterbugs — these shameful “Faces of Litter” — were transferred to oversized posters and splashed across heavily trafficked bus and railway stations across Hong Kong for all to see. The portraits were also available to view online.

Wild, eh? One day you’re absent-mindedly tossing your cigarette butt or whatnot to the curb and a couple weeks later, you’re the not-so-respectable poster boy or girl for a citywide anti-littering campaign.

Back in 2013, MNN’s Starre Vartan wrote about a similar DNA-based litterbug-profiling project launched by a doctoral student at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

As City Lab points out, the digitally rendered portraits on display across Hong Kong weren’t of real-life litterbugs but of a volunteer control group. And even then, the portraits, however uncanny, weren’t that dead on.

Rafael Guida, executive creative director with OglivyOne Hong Kong, explains: “While this method may not identify specific individuals, it will be enough to make people think twice about littering. The campaign combines a public service message with science and technology, enabling us to communicate with Hongkongers in a very different way.”

Ogilvy & Mather Hong’s Kong Group’s chief creative head Reed Collins drives home the “think twice” aspect of the campaign:” This campaign is one of a kind. It’s interactive. It’s innovative. It’s our own science experiment that we’re using to create social change. Litter is such a major problem in Hong Kong, and thanks to newly available DNA technology we can now put a face to this anonymous crime and get people to think twice about littering.” 

It’s worth noting that the campaign comes at a time when Hong Kong has reached peak garbage. The city, which produces and dumps a staggering 16,000 tons of trash daily, is literally up to its ears in trash as it rapidly runs out of landfill space. A recent report conducted by Hong Kong’s government also paints a grim portrait of marine trash: 95 percent of trash (primarily plastics) found polluting the city’s famed harbor and waterways is generated locally while 80 percent of it is generated not by maritime industries, but by land-based activities. 

Via [CityLab], [PSFK]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Thanks to technology, Hong Kong litterbugs are subject to very public outing
DNA phenotyping puts a face on anonymous litterers in environmental awareness campaign.