Cleaning Beaches, Collecting Data

Read About Plastic Pollution & Solutions

A key aspect of the Adopt-a-Beach program is data collection. As volunteer teams clean beaches, they become community scientists, recording what they find and contributing to a larger cause.

Why collect litter data?

Collecting data influences decisions about our public spaces, drinking water, and environment. By recording exactly what types and how much litter is found on beaches, volunteers help scientists study sources of pollution and help policy makers develop new programs and policies.

Also, while scientists have been studying plastic pollution in the ocean for decades, there is a lot less research about plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Adopt-a-Beach data collection is one way our Great Lakes community is beginning to fill that gap.

20 years of data

Thanks to Adopt-a-Beach teams, we have more than 20 years of data from cleanups in all eight Great Lakes states. No lab or individual researcher could collect this large data set on their own. Long-term data sets are particularly valuable to researchers and policy makers because they can demonstrate trends over time and show both positive and negative changes.

What the data tells us

In 2024, we analyzed the data collected from more than 14,000 Adopt-a-Beach cleanups over the past 20 years. The analysis revealed some alarming and consistent patterns.

  • 86% the litter collected on Great Lakes beaches is composed either partially or fully of plastic. In the environment, plastics never go away. Instead, they break down into toxic microplastic particles that make their way into the Great Lakes, a source of drinking water for 40 million people.
  • Much of the litter is from single-use items – used once and left behind – which contain plastic.
  • From 2014-2023, the top litter items collected are tiny plastic pieces, followed by cigarette butts, tiny foam pieces, plastic bottle caps, and food wrappers.
  • 40% of all litter collected is “tiny trash” – pieces of litter measuring less than 2.5 centimeters.

Data sharing

When volunteers enter litter data after a cleanup, their data is automatically added to our coastal litter database. Once a year, the Alliance sends our regional database to the Ocean Conservancy, which maintains a global database of coastal litter.

If you are a researcher, educator, policy maker or planner, or an interested citizen, we’d be happy to provide data to you. Please send an email to We can send graphical summaries or raw data sets depending on your needs.

Recent data summaries

Publications using Adopt-a-Beach data

Reda, Olivia (2024). Adopt-a-Beach: 20 Years of Great Lakes Litter Data, A Story of Plastic Pollution Told Through Citizen Science. Alliance for the Great Lakes

Hoellein, Timothy J.; Westhoven, Megan; Lyandres, Olga & Cross, Jamie, (2014). Abundance and environmental drivers of anthropogenic litter on 5 Lake Michigan beaches: A study facilitated by citizen science data collection. Journal of Great Lakes Research

Vincent, Anna; Drag, Nate; Lyandres, Olga; Neville, Sarah & Hoellein, Timothy, (2016). Citizen science datasets reveal drivers of spatial and temporal variation for anthropogenic litter on Great Lakes beaches. Science of the Total Environment

Driedger, Alexander G.J.; Durr, Hans H.; Mitchell, Kristen & Van Cappellen, Phillippe, (2015). Plastic debris in the Laurentian Great Lakes: A review. Journal of Great Lakes Research