A team effort

In 2012, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Earthwatch Institue, and the HSBC Water Programme began working with volunteers as part of the global Freshwater Watch initiative.

Hundreds of dedicated Citizen Science Leaders (CSLs) were trained to collect litter and submit litter data from beaches and shorelines along Lake Michigan, Erie, and Ontario to help protect the Great Lakes from trash, litter, and debris as part of the Adopt-a-Beach™ program.

Litter landscape in the Great Lakes

We’ve known for a long time that there’s a lot of trash on the ocean’s beaches. But what about the Great Lakes? Is there as much trash here? Over a four year period, CSLs helped the Alliance and our partners’ study where trash is on our beaches, what happens to it, and what we can do about it.

We’ve recently learned that there’s as much litter along Great Lakes’ shorelines as there is in the ocean. In the ocean, litter on beaches can come from faraway places like fishing boats or illegal dumping. But in the Great Lakes, the litter is made up of items that people use near the shore like cigarette butts, food wrappers, and other consumer items. Plus, most of the litter that is found on Great Lakes’ beaches is made up of plastic.

Is all this plastic litter on beaches bad for our communities and environment? Scientists are looking at how plastic can hurt the environment and animals that live there: plastic bags and fishing line can tangle up animals; smaller pieces of plastic that have broken off of large items can attract chemicals in the water, and if animals eat that plastic, they can get sick; and plastics can help move nonnative species to new areas.

A wealth of data

Volunteers collecting data helped scientists study this problem. Over several years, CSLs collected litter and submitted data for a few of their favorite beaches in Buffalo, NY and Chicago, IL.

After four years’ worth of data collection by CSLs, the Alliance collaborated with Dr. Tim Hoellein of Loyola University to compile and analyze the data they collected and uncover meaningful findings about the problems facing the Great lakes. Here’s what we learned:

  • A lot of beach litter is consumer goods, such as food wrappers, straws, cups, or cigarette butts, which come from beach goers and nearby communities.
  • Sandy beaches in cities have the most litter, especially things like food wrappers and cigarette butts. The amount of litter at these beaches changes through the year.
  • There is the least amount of litter on the beaches in the summer because park workers clean the beaches then. In New York, there was more litter in the springtime before park workers start to clean the beach but in Illinois, there was more litter in the fall after park workers stop cleaning the beach.
  • Smaller pieces of litter that have broken off of larger items, like a plastic bottle, are found in the same amount throughout the whole year at most beaches and there are more small pieces of litter in New York than in Illinois.

What’s next for Great Lakes research?

We learned a lot about litter on beaches because of the hard work of the CSLs, but we need to learn a lot more:

  • How can we learn more about people that come to beach and what they do with their trash? Since we know that a lot of litter on Great Lakes beaches are things that people use every day and that there is more litter where a lot of people live, we need to learn how many people come to the beach, when they come to the beach, and what they do with this trash.
  • How can we figure out better ways to keep beaches clean? Since we know that park workers do a good job keeping the beaches clean in the summer, we need to test which ways of keeping the beach clean work the best.
  • How can we learn more about the different types of litter, like plastic, that we find on beaches across the Great Lakes? Since a lot of the litter we find on beaches is plastic, what would happen if volunteers and park workers didn’t pick it up and they broke into smaller pieces of trash that can’t be picked up?

What’s being done with this research right now?

Thanks to all the hard work of the CSLs and our friends at Loyola University, we can help beach managers and park officials think of new ways to help keep our beaches clean and fun!

  • Clean the beaches throughout the year – Since there is less litter on the beach in the summer, park workers should clean the beach earlier in the spring and later in the fall by working together with volunteers.
  • Help people throw their trash in the right place – Since we know a lot of beach litter is things people use once and throw away, beaches can put out new and fun trash and recycling cans to give people the chance to throw garbage in the right place – not on the beach.

What can you do to help?

You can help protect the Great Lakes from litter every day by:

  • Not buying plastic items you only use once – Instead of buying a bottle of water, you can refill your own water bottle; instead of buying a coffee in a cup you will throw away, bring your own mug; instead of using a plastic shopping bag at the store, bring your own reusable shopping bag. If we don’t use these common items anymore, then we won’t find on the beach.
  • Join Adopt-a-Beach™ – If you come to an Adopt-a-Beach™ cleanup, you will stop litter on the beach from breaking into smaller pieces of trash and will keep them from hurting animals. Also, you will have fun helping your community and give information to scientists.
  • Support the Alliance – organizations like the Alliance use the information that volunteers share with us to help our government keep the Great Lakes clean, healthy, and fun.