Pirika: Tackling the litter problem around the world

Fujio Kojima launched his own start-up, Pirika, to address the issue of littering across the globe using Artificial Intelligence.

by Julia Migné

Pirika littering clean up Japan INKLINE
The Pirika team. © Pirika

According to Keep Britain Tidy, 62% of people in England drop litter but only 28% admit to doing so. This statistics is absolutely shocking and comes at a high price: cleaning the streets costs taxpayers £1 billion a year.

Sadly, England is far from being an isolated case and litter is a major issue in most big cities around the world. From chewing gums to cigarettes butts, litter can be of all types and its cost is not only financial, it also impacts on local communities’ health and well-being.

It’s not all doom and gloom though and lots of bright minds are tackling the issue across the globe. Fujio Kojima is one of them. After traveling for a while, Fujio was astonished by the amount of litter he encountered. Heading back to Japan, his home country, he decided to create an app that would help measure how big of an impact people cleaning public spaced around the world were making. He then went on and turned his concept into a company and Pirika was born.

Fujio talks to INKLINE about the issue of littering in cities and how he intends to make a difference in the world.

Kojima Fujio Pirika founder INKLINE
Fujio Kojima, founder of Pirika. © Pirika

INKLINE: What triggered your interest in the issue of litter in cities? 

Fujio Kojima:  I have been interested in the problem of littering and other environmental issues since I was eight years old! I wanted to become a researcher so I went to college and studied in an environmental programme but I failed because I couldn’t build good relationships with my professors. I quit graduate school and I went on to do an internship instead. But I couldn’t build a good relationship with my boss so I decided to launch my own start-up because that way I wouldn’t have a boss!

Following this decision, I went on a trip to see which kind of environmental issues I could solve. I noticed that littering accounted for about 95% of the environmental problems that I encountered in cities.

That’s why when I came back to Japan I decided to start Pirika but since I was a trained mechanical engineer I had no skills in terms of writing codes and programming. So I asked my friends to help me and teach me how to do programming and that’s how two of my friends and I made a prototype of the Pirika app.

I: Why did you decide to create an app to tackle the problem?

F: Many people and groups of people are trying to clean up cities in Japan but sometimes it doesn’t work! We have so  many cleaners who are doing their best but they don’t count how many pieces of litter they pick up and don’t record the type of litter they collect.

I was a scientist who really liked numbers so I wanted to come up with that kind of measurement. That’s why my friends and I decided to make an application as a way to measure the impact that these cleaning groups had.

I: How does the app actually work?

F: The app is for individuals who pick up litter and then count how many pieces of litter they picked up. They can also share photos of what they picked up, add a location and then can share it on Twitter or Facebook. Cleaning groups can also count how much litter they picked up and tell us more about the type of litter they picked up.

Since the launch of the app it has been mainly used by Japanese with 95% of litter picked up  in Japan. Moreover, sometimes when Japanese travel to other countries, they pick up litter while they are on their holiday. 

I: Could you tell us a bit more about how you are designing litterless cities using artificial intelligence?

F: After releasing our app we had a measurement of the amount of litter being picked up by people around the country but we still didn’t have a measurement of the level of littering in the streets or cities. That’s why we developed a researching app! What we do now is just record videos of streets and we then analyse them to see how many pieces of litter or what kind of litter is there by using Artificial Intelligence.

With this data we can create maps showing  the clean areas in green and  the littered areas in darker shades. This is really helpful for local authorities because they have to clean up their cities and with those maps they can focus their budget on the littered areas only. 

NGOs in New York, for example, contacted us and asked us if we could include them in our research project. So they did their research and then sent their data to New York local authorities.

Pirika maps Artificial Intelligence INKLINE
This map is showing areas that are heavily littered in red. © Pirika

Now we are trying to look at the relationship between the design of cities and littering. One example is that the design of smoking areas has a very strong relationship with the level of littering! In Japan some smoking areas are surrounded by trees and actually this type of smoking area is very bad in terms of littering levels.

However, if people are going inside to smoke instead of standing outside their behaviour is totally different! That’s why we developed a connection with a tobacco company and we are now trying to design better smoking areas to try to stop that type of littering.

Cigarettes butts are one type of litter that Pirika is tackling at the moment. © Pirika

I: What is the main challenge you are now facing with Pirika?

F: Now we have to find a new solution to tackle the issue in order to change people’s behaviour or to find a way to clean cities better. We are trying to develop a new solution and it’s our biggest challenge! I don’t know how many years it will take us but we have to do it because every country and every city has this problem and every government spends a lot of money to try fixing it. 

I: Any exciting plans you’d like to share with us?

F: At the moment we are talking with the local authorities of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and if the talks are successful we could launch the application there by December of this year!

Pirika litter environment Abu Dhabi
Pirika plans to launch in Abu Dhabi by December 2017. © Pirika

 At the moment we have to walk around to take videos of the streets but it’s a waste of time because if we tried to record all the streets everywhere we’ll have to spend around 3,000 years on it! One of our new staff member used to work for Google and that’s why we are now trying to use Google Maps to do that better and to try to find litter using their street view. It’s a very interesting challenge!

“Making sales is very difficult at the beginning so what people can do is save their money. It’s not ideal but it’s very important!”

I: Any advice for the twenty-something  out there who wish to launch their start-up?

F: Money is very important and it is a very difficult problem when you want to launch a start-up! Making sales is very difficult at the beginning so what people can do is save their money. It’s not ideal but it’s very important!

I was very good at saving. For example at some point I didn’t have a house anymore and so I stayed in my friends’ houses and I saved so much money doing so. When I didn’t have my own house it was a very tough experience but actually it’s a very good memory because my friends helped me so much!

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