A new artificial intelligence tool is aiming to tackle the problem of litter spoiling New Zealand's beaches.

The project is a partnership between Hamilton tech firm Enlighten Designs, Microsoft New Zealand, and charity Sustainable Coastlines.

Microsoft NZ chief technology officer Russell Craig said part of what his business is focused on is to change how artificial intelligence (or AI) is perceived.

"AI is potentially quite a confronting and concerning topic — one of the things we are working really hard to do, being right at the epicentre of this revolution, is to shift the nature of the conversation."


New Zealanders may like to think they are tidy Kiwis but earlier this year we came out as the world's No10 worst consumer of urban waste in the world, according to World Bank figures.

And as the population grows, this is only going to get worse, says Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt.

Howitt says that some of the worst affected beaches in New Zealand are those in remote areas where the problem may not be seen until it is quite advanced.

Uninhabited beaches of Auckland's Rangitoto Island are heavily affected by litter from Auckland city's streets for example, he says.

Drone technology by the United Kingdom charity The Plastic Tide is helping with closer monitoring of this.

In the coming months, the Sustainable Coastlines-led programme will ask communities of "citizen scientists" to collect data on the litter they pick up on their beaches in a disciplined, organised fashion.

The Microsoft AI tool is paired with a United Nations Environment Programme methodology to help groups around the country capture and categorise what litter is on our beaches.

Working alongside the Ministry for the Environment, Department of Conservation and Statistics New Zealand, data collected from Sustainable Coastlines' new tool will be used to help establish a national litter database.


The hope is that Government and communities will learn about the effectiveness of different "litter interventions including educational approaches" so they can collectively work together to change litter behaviours, says Enlighten Designs chief executive Damon Kelly.

"Litter tech helps to better tell stories. We are looking forward to insights we don't know about. Our charity has been collecting data on this for 10 years. This is a new, more rigorously scientific way of doing it — it's broader." says Howitt.

Through Microsoft's data visualisation tool, Power BI, data collected from the tool will be presented in an engaging and easy to understand format, he says.

The programme will help schools, community groups and businesses to look at the data and trends from a local perspective, empowering them to undertake their own litter-reduction projects in their communities, he adds.

For Sustainable Coastlines, what this extra data from communities will do is give a "sense of urgency" to the problem, Howitt hopes. It will prove where the problem is, and what the priorities and solutions are for their area.

Sustainable Coastlines is putting out a call to communities around New Zealand concerned about the litter on their local beaches.

Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt wants communities of
Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Camden Howitt wants communities of "citizen scientists" to collect data on the litter on beaches. Photo / Supplied

The charity will be asking the selected communities to do quarterly surveys of their beaches, measuring, weighing and photographing the extent of their area's litter problem.

They will also be providing relevant information on nearby waterways, stormwater locations and recent weather patterns.

Howitt wants to know how policy changes relate to the make-up of litter — he will be looking closely at what the plastic bag ban does for the environment in the coming year, for instance.

"We can't improve what we cannot measure," he says.

The first community working with Sustainable Coastlines on the initiative is in Waikanae, Gisborne.

Nicky Solomon, a local volunteer with Plastic Bag Free Tairawhiti, is a working mother of two, who, with a crew of other volunteers, has been regularly collecting rubbish from the beach for the past couple of years.

What appealed about the Sustainable Coastlines litter initiative? "A big part for me is about regional and community pride — our region is often in the media for negative reasons. I was keen for us to be promoting something positive," she says.

"I have a science background, I love the idea of bringing science to bear on the problem, having objectives," she adds.

Solomon was delighted when the Sustainable Coastlines team came to the community to talk about the tech litter project for a public presentation in July and to do a big clean-up while there.

"Hundreds of people came. It was amazing, our clean-up crew is usually 20 odd people," says Solomon.

It gave her work a new impetus, she says.

"I really welcomed and valued this collaboration with Cam and his team because they are actually doing this as their day job so there is a level of professionalism. I like their energy, knowledge and experience — it can get lonely as a volunteer. It's nice feeling part of something bigger."

For their quarterly surveys, the Waikanae Beach community volunteers measure out the same space in square metres every time, they rake the beach, picking up the litter, taking it back, weighing it, counting it, cataloguing it and feeding that information back to Sustainable Coastlines via the tech platform.

Howitt notes, rather than a usual app, the three-pronged partnership is building a technology platform.

"So instead of being available from a traditional app store, this will be available through any desktop or mobile device. Enlighten Designs is working with Sustainable Coastlines to build the solution, making the most of Microsoft's cloud and business intelligence technologies."

All project findings will be publicly available through a purpose-built litter database and education hub, which comes with smart science communications and data visualisation tools.

Educators nationwide meanwhile, will be trained to deliver a new "curriculum-aligned" behaviour-change programme that aims to curb single-plastic consumption and reduce litter.

Being asked by their parents or teachers to pick up litter doesn't really set young people alight. But being involved as young citizen scientists collecting data which could change government policy, that could be another thing.

The data collection makes the process more fun for young people and when the data comes in the conversation becomes more about story telling and solutions, says Howitt.

Solomon is heartened by the interest of her Year 7 daughter's school in the tech litter initiative.

The school dedicates a day a week to a number of impact projects and this AI-led litter project has been put on the list of the school's projects for next year.

"If this can get young people interested in science and the methodology and thinking and reasoning, if you have got strong evidence for something, that's great," says Solomon.

"For me it's really valuable philosophically," she adds. "It's important not to be "paralysed by the magnitude of a project."

This research has "robustness and meaning" and that makes the challenges seem more achievable.

Along with this Gisborne community, Howitt is hoping to monitor sites in more than 100 beaches in the country over the next couple of years — and he has a call to action on the Sustainable Coastlines website for those interested.

"We already have lot of contacts after 10 years, but we'd love to hear more expressions of interest," says the co-founder.

Microsoft's Craig is optimistic about the size the project will get to and is encouraging his partners to think big.

It is all about adding to "evidence-based dialogue" and "getting away from arguments", he says. That is empowering.

"To keep the politicians honest, all you need is a phone in your pocket and an app to download.

"It's real empirical evidence based on what's working and how to design better interventions for the future," he says.

You could maybe gamify it for kids, give social rewards, he suggests.

Craig says this kind of AI can also work for reporting plant viruses or disease, or mole screening.

The CTO is hoping for more AI project partnerships.

"We are only limited by the imagination — if we can get an army of volunteers capturing the data ... then it's applicable."

Meanwhile as everyone heads to the beach these holidays, take some time to see what the litter build-up is like in your community.