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Friday, April 12, 2024

#UNLITTER: The Snapchat caption that sparked a global movement

The movement created by UF students promotes sustainable, conscious living

In 2016, Sabina Osman opened her friend’s Snapchat story. The video of a friend racing across the street to pick up a piece of trash played on loop as she read the caption, “#UNLITTER.” Little did the friends know the joke would transform into something much larger.

The group of UF students at the time held sustainability in high regard and mused on the Snapchat caption. While Osman, a 27-year-old UF aluma, and her friends would frequently use the word in conversation, they had never visualized it.

“When I saw it on Snapchat is when I realized how it caught on,” Osman said. “A word could be said but then when it's visual, all of a sudden you're like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real?’”

After some contemplation and brainstorming, they decided to chip in for some stickers, which they would share with other friends and place on random objects found afloat in Gainesville. People began to notice the #UNLITTER stickers and patches on everything from water bottles and hiking backpacks to trash cans.

Paralleling the heightened demand for stickers and patches, photos began rolling in from people all over the world, Osman said. She and her friends compiled the pictures in an Instagram account, @UNLITTER, which gained traction. And, thus, a movement was born.

The #UNLITTER Movement is a nonprofit organization that actively empowers individuals to live sustainably, consciously and positively, Osman said in a talk given at the Matheson History Museum on November 29, 2023. Through events, educational content and community action, #UNLITTER works to inspire people to “unlitter” their minds, habits and environments. 

The Snapchat caption and name of the movement reflects its mission. #UNLITTER, which is both an action and a noun, reflects the organization’s mission to actively spark awareness about sustainable consciousness. 

“When you unlitter, you are actively removing waste or trash from the place where it's not supposed to be and thereby creating a better, cleaner, healthier environment,” Osman said. “Unlitter as a noun is a physical organization, a movement of people who are doing these things.”

Katharina Wood Koepcke, a 20-year-old UF business and entomology sophomore, had heard about #UNLITTER through the UF Environmental Coalition, which the movement is a part of. As she began noticing #UNLITTER stickers around campus on trash cans and water bottles, she said she felt the organization’s impact.

“Once you know about #UNLITTER, you start to see signs of it everywhere,” Koepcke said. 

The organization is community driven, Osman said. It spans from event attendees and board of directors to local area representatives and the global team.

Vivian Powell, a 22-year-old UF environmental engineering and sustainability senior, discovered #UNLITTER on Instagram during high school. After seeing the smiling faces of club members in the outdoors, Powell joined the movement once she reached college and is now an executive member of #UNLITTER UF. She said the work of the #UNLITTER movement can be attributed to the community it fosters.

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“[The community] is very strong in creating that confidence in your own abilities to make change and your ability to collaborate and make things happen,” Powell said.

The natural evolution of the movement parallels its  approach. Powell said organizers hope to bring awareness to harmful micro-habits and offer tangible ways to eliminate them such as picking up litter or adopting eco-friendly practices.

“Things don't have to be big to make a difference,” Powell said. “It can be as simple as just talking about something you care about [to] somebody else sharing your perspective.”

Isabella Marti, a 21-year-old UF political science and education science junior and director of #UNLITTER UF, used her passion for fashion to create thrift initiatives. 

She said, #UNLITTER Your Closet, which works to reduce fast-fashion waste, is one of #UNLITTER UF’s largest projects.

With textile production being one of the most polluting industries of clean water worldwide, Marti’s frequent thrift swaps, she said, offer people an outlet for getting rid of unwanted clothing, growing their wardrobes with secondhand items and building relationships. 

“Life is meant to be spent with people that matter [and] connecting with the Earth [and] connecting with each other,” Marti said. “That's something that anyone that gets close to #UNLITTER will immediately see and hear.”

While many of its initiatives are executed globally, #UNGLITTER is unique to Gainesville. At UF, the trend of using plastic glitter for graduation photos ends up in drainage systems that lead to local waterways, Osman said. #UNGLITTER reduces the amount of plastic waste on campus and protects the local environment by offering a biodegradable alternative.

“It is really beautiful to take graduation pictures with confetti,” Osman said. “But our goal is to make sure that the confetti does not disturb the ecosystem that all the Gator students and the animals love so dearly.” 

The local #UNLITTER branch has grown in membership since 2016, according to several members. The movement hosts clean up events, invasive species removals, Krishna social lunches and yoga classes. Its local education initiative at Gainesville schools educates K-5 students about practical ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. 

In addition to the environmental influence of the sustainable projects it pursues, #UNLITTER left a positive mark in Gainesville’s City Hall. Members of the Gainesville community spent over two years collecting 75,000 bottle caps, which are not recyclable in local Gainesville recycling plants. In October 2022, the multicolored caps were pieced together into a mural of a sunset overlooking Paynes Prairie.

Paynes Prairie, an #UNLITTER “treasure,” was chosen as a muse to emphasize the importance of taking care of the community, according to the #UNLITTER Bottlecap Mural Documentary

The movement’s mission to think global and act local continues to impact Gainesville locals and the broader community by offering a progressive view of the future.

Contact Molly Seghi at Follow her on Twitter @molly_seghi.

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Molly Seghi

Molly Seghi is a first-year journalism major at UF and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When not writing or journaling, she can be found at a live music event or working on her podcast “An Aural Account.”

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