Müllweg! DE – The German solution to fight illegal waste dumping

The problem

Illegal waste dumping, also known as “fly-tipping”, is a threat to our health and the environment.  According to German legislation, anyone who places waste in the public space with no permission commits an administrative offence or even a crime and can be legally persecuted.

According to German environmental law, no public administration can refuse processing a report about illegal waste disposal unless the report is untrustworthy, especially when reported anonymously.

The challenge

Thomas Lennartz, a German technology expert with a background in law, was particularly concerned by this issue. Trying to understand how he could contribute to keeping the streets clean, Thomas noticed that there was no coherent system to report illegal waste directly to the competent authorities.

Indeed, when finding illegal deposits of waste, the first challenge for an everyday citizen is to determine who is in charge of receiving the warning. In Germany, local authorities are usually responsible for waste removal. Nevertheless, even when the responsible authority is easily identified, what is often missing is an effective and comprehensive platform for citizens to report their findings. Germany counts 13 000 municipal areas, each relying on a different reporting system based on phone calls, online forms, emails and even faxes.  Navigating these reporting systems can thus quickly become a burdensome endeavour.

The satellite solution

In 2017, Thomas Lennartz decided to use its computing skills to create the app Müllweg!DE (literally “Trash away”). He did so as a personal project and with no commercial purposes in mind. The app allows individual citizens to report illegal dumping and communicate its location directly to the competent authorities through the built-in satellite navigation receivers on their mobile devices. Local authorities are hence able to better locate and remove the waste.

The app operates on two databases covering around 10 000 municipalities or regional districts. Almost 2 000 entries have been manually checked by Thomas, while 9 500 municipalities’ contacts have been collected from web resources or through official channels. If both databases deliver no match, a real-time algorithm will try to retrieve the e-mail address of the competent authority by combining a Wikipedia API query to find the website of the municipality and a website crawling attempt to get the address from the “about us” section of the authority’s homepage. Missing authorities and contacts can be added by the users of the app or by the app’s administrator.

According to the point of access of the user, the geolocation of the illegal dumping can be immediately acquired using a smartphone. Otherwise, the app can extract the location from the metadata of a picture taken with a digital camera. Alternatively, the address can be manually indicated and the app will automatically transform it into latitude and longitude coordinates. The geolocation is indicated on OpenStreetMap and can be corrected manually by the user, if necessary.

The overall reporting procedure takes less than a minute. The app does not require registration, but the identity of the users is certified through the personal email address used when sending a report either through the app or desktop interface.

The results

Today, Müllweg! DE includes data on 10 000 of the 13 000 German municipalities – that’s more than 85% of the area of Germany and its coverage is continually growing.

The success of Müllweg! DE is due to its usefulness and to Thomas’ online marketing activity, including Google SEO optimisation, social media, online networking, and communication to stakeholders, such as environmental organisations, newspapers and websites. In some cases, the municipalities themselves decided to promote the app.

Müllweg! DE recorded more than 8 000 downloads and approximately 300/400 new users join in every month. On a monthly basis, 500 to 600 illegal dumping reports are recorded. Besides, more than 5 000 train stations managed by Deutsche Bahn, the German Railway company, are included in the database of Müllweg! DE.

Running the app costs only 200 euros per year, showing that good will, skills and a touch of technology are sometimes the only ingredients needed to improve the management of our streets.

With MÜLLweg! DE I would like to make a small personal contribution to environmental protection. I am happy about any suggestions helping it to become a little bit better day by day

Thomas Lennartz