Using Citizen Science to Understand Marine Debris

Posted Thu, 04/08/2021 - 11:00

Spring is here! As the temperatures increase and weather improves, many of us are drawn to the outdoors. But what if your trip to the beach could be more than just an enjoyable day? What if you could do scientific research at the same time? 

Citizen science, sometimes called community science, is a partnership between the public and professional scientists where anyone can have a role in the scientific process. Opportunities for the public most often come in the form of data collection, but they can also include providing input on questions to investigate, participating in study design, or interpreting and sharing results. Several projects funded through the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) have tapped into this community resource as well, and committed stewards around the country have contributed invaluable data to monitoring and research projects that support our vision of a sea free of debris.

No Butts About It

Some people are surprised to find out that one of the most commonly found marine debris items in their area is not plastic bottles, takeout containers, or straws, but cigarette butts. In 2018, over 5.7 million cigarette butts were found on beaches during the International Coastal Cleanup. Although cigarette butt litter seems to be socially acceptable, these pesky problems are actually made of cellulose acetate, a plastic-like material. This means that, just like other forms of plastic, cigarette butts won’t biodegrade. And as they persist in our water, beaches, and urban environments, they can leach out toxins into the environment or be ingested by wildlife.

Surfrider Foundation volunteers in San Francisco found an average of 6,500 cigarette butts at every two-hour cleanup event. Armed with the data gathered by these community members, Surfrider San Francisco and its partners are working to design and implement a comprehensive program to reduce cigarette butt litter in the San Francisco Bay Area. They’ve installed disposal “buttcan” receptacles, designed and distributed pocket ashtrays, spread awareness with posters and videos, and more, all to get everyone to “Hold on to Your Butt.”

Properly Throwing Away Our Shot

Some citizen science efforts use data from around the world. But sometimes these efforts can zero in on problems much closer to home. That’s what happened when volunteers at the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) participated in the Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (MDMAP), a NOAA citizen science initiative that engages partners and volunteers across the nation to survey and record the amount and types of marine debris on shorelines. While monitoring shorelines with MDMAP, volunteers at the Greater Farallones NMS noticed the frequency of a unique type of debris along their shorelines: shotgun wads. These plastic pieces, which separate shot from powder inside a shotgun shell, are one of the most common recognizable plastic items on surveyed shorelines in the Greater Farallones NMS. This knowledge quickly translated into the power to drive local change. 

Armed with the debris data collected by citizen scientists, Greater Farallones NMS and a number of partners came together to investigate the issue and pursue solutions. First, they needed to know more about why shotgun wads are littered so often. A subsequent survey of hunters revealed that 80% were unaware of the issue of shotgun wad debris. The same percentage of respondents were either somewhat or extremely concerned about the issue, revealing that a lack of awareness was an important factor in the pervasiveness of this unique litter type. These puzzle pieces came together to inspire ways to address discarded shotgun wads: several disposal receptacles and associated signage were posted throughout local hunting reserves. As MDMAP volunteers continue to conduct shoreline surveys, we’ll be able to track the impact of these efforts on the prevalence of shotgun wad debris at Greater Farallones NMS. In the future, this project’s successful results could even inspire similar efforts in other regions of the United States, scaling up to make a wave of behavior change.

Small Plastics, Big Problems

Plastic is the most widespread type of marine debris, and it comes in all shapes and sizes, from enormous fishing nets to minuscule fragments smaller than just five millimeters. These tiny threats are called microplastics. Scientists around the world have been diligently researching the impacts of microplastics on the environment and wildlife, but there is a lot still to be discovered, including just how widespread these nuisances are. That’s where citizen science can make the difference! 

The Florida Microplastics Awareness Project was funded by the MDP in 2015 as a partnership with Florida Sea Grant. Sea Grant and their trained partners coordinated with local volunteers to conduct regional microplastic sampling, education, and outreach. These citizen scientists collected and analyzed monthly samples from more than twenty locations, quantifying the amounts of microplastics in each location. The dedicated staff and volunteers have kept up this effort following the end of MDP funding in 2016, and they continue to support data collection and analysis across Florida. Sea Grant and their partners have created an extensive library of resources using the data, from posters and fliers, to presentations and videos educating Floridians about microplastics. This kind of place-based research gathered by members of nearby communities shows the public that microplastics are not just a problem somewhere else, but are present in local waters.

Our Collective Stake in Science

From 5.7 million cigarette butts to tiny microplastics, data about marine debris can provide critical information to advance scientific research. Results from NOAA’s MDMAP surveys have been used broadly in articles and reports on topics ranging from the impacts of the 2011 Great Japan Tsunami to socioeconomic drivers of marine debris. These discoveries would have been impossible without the data collected by citizen scientist volunteers from around the country.

Citizen science allows researchers to ask questions that they couldn’t address without the dedication of an involved and curious community. Like tiles in a mosaic, each small contribution becomes an integral part of the bigger picture. Citizen science efforts inform a wealth of datasets giving researchers greater insight and understanding, which can translate into meaningful changes in behavior everywhere.

Interested in joining citizen science efforts to tackle marine debris? Check out our blog feature on how to get involved!

Using Citizen Science to Understand Marine Debris

Posted Thu, 04/08/2021 - 11:00

For citation purposes, unless otherwise noted, this article was authored by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

The Marine Debris Blog is no longer accepting comments but continues to display past contributions.


Thu, 04/08/2021 - 12:07

I’m glad there is so much initiative taken in this direction .I am very interested in learning more about citizen science and getting more involved. Thank you.


Wed, 04/14/2021 - 19:29

Disinfectant wipes are hurting our environment. 

During this health crisis, many are taking along a pack of “on-the-go” disinfectant wipes to keep safe from germs. Many retailers also offer wipes upon entering the store to wipe down your cart. While this is convenient, it’s posing a large problem: littering and pollution.

Many are using their wipes and littering them outside the store or near their car. In the UK, the number of wet wipes found along the coastline has increased by more than 400 percent over the past 10 years, The Guardian reported. 

This leads to a mass exodus of wipes into our landfills, especially during a time when the country is completely sold out of wipes because we’re disinfecting everything.

What are companies like grocery and retail stores doing to lessen the mass exodus of disinfecting wipes polluting our landfills and coastlines?

We would like to partner with you in our mission to fight for trash free seas. We have provided a solution that starts at the shopping cart/basket. Visit our link for a 3D virtual tour and benefit and features overview.

How we are doing it in Alberta, Canada: grocery and retail stores are using sanitizer with pumps at the entrances (placed on tables), or sanitizer jugs on stands with a foot pedal. Customers simply push on the pump an amount into their hands, wipe it all over the hands, front and back, then go grab a grocery basket or cart (all pre-sanitized by store employees) then enter further into the store to shop, remembering to distance ourselves properly. No wipes required, thus no mess.

This is great to have the cart pre sanitized for the shopper. I guess my concern is still this, are the employees still using single-use disinfectant wipes to sanitize each cart? If so, this action is still causing debris that makes its way to our landfills and coastlines. If the employees are using a rag to wipe down multiple carts after spraying them with disinfectant, this is highly ineffective in the efforts to prevent the spread of germs and pothogens according to the "how to use labels of most disinfectant sprays. I do believe that the only solution would be, that these retail stores invest in an eco-friendly, hands free cart sanitation station that provides a sustainable effective solution to a worldwide issue.

Jessica Filichia

Tue, 04/20/2021 - 07:43

Thank you awesome scientists for all your hard work and dedication. Maybe sit back, read The Lorax, take a nap and let Mother Earth take care of the the mess for a bit. She's quite capable.

Andrew Gibb

Wed, 05/12/2021 - 06:25

I am a civil engineer and I am looking into the construction industry as my specialty using geosynthetic Technology. I believe that it has a more positive impact on the community and high quality innovation. It is so nice to see articles like this to enhance my skills.

Bob Lilikens

Thu, 05/20/2021 - 12:58


murali pagadala

Sun, 05/23/2021 - 06:26

this is useful


Mon, 05/24/2021 - 16:48

🚭 Doesn’t recycle ♻️ the cigarette butts’ for any kind of purpose🚭


Mon, 03/06/2023 - 18:12

Very useful information, thank you ;)