Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 19


  Beach debris

Plastic and other debris on the
beach at Petit Martinique,
Grenada, 2000, looks unsightly
and eventually washes into the
sea and impacts marine life.

Bobbins of thread washed up from a container
onto the beaches of Anegada, British Virgin
Islands, in 1990. When unravelled, the thread
made thick underwater mats endangering some
marine life.


Beach debris includes garbage left behind by beach users, as well as materials both natural and man-made washed onto the beach by the waves or transported by rivers. Such materials may include tree trunks or branches; seaweed and seagrass; tarballs, which are large or small pieces of tar (solidified oil) and are usually soft to touch; pieces of boat; plastic oil containers etc. The presence of litter such as plastic bottles, snack wrappers and sewage-related debris on beaches and in the water is unattractive, has health and economic impacts on beach users and local communities, and is potentially harmful to marine wildlife through entanglement and ingestion.

Activity 7.1


Measuring beach debris

What and how to measure


Select a point behind the beach and mark off a straight line across the beach towards the sea; this is called a transect line. Collect all the debris found 5 yds (5 m) on each side of this line. Sort the debris into different groups using the categories listed in Figure 14. This figure shows the Beach cleanup data card used by the Ocean Conservancy in their International Beach Clean-ups. Record, count and measure all the debris found within 5 yds (5 m) of the transect line. If you do not have a set of weighing scales available, then count the number of items.


Figure 14
Beach cleanup data card (front and back).
Source: Ocean Conservancy http://www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/debris/floatingdebris/append-d2.pdf
(See also Annex 3, to reproduce for classroom purposes.)


You may also wish to add tarballs to the list of items since these are often numerous on exposed ocean beaches. Tarballs can be recorded in the same way as other debris items, and if these are of particular interest, or they represent a special problem at the beach, they can be counted and the diameter along the longest axis measured.

Record the location of the transect so as to be able to return to the same point at a future date. Several transects may be set up on one beach.

It is important to take adequate safety precautions when conducting marine debris surveys. Gloves should be used, and students should be cautioned not to touch anything they may be suspicious about, e.g. any container marked with poison, or syringes.

Once the debris has been recorded, be sure to dispose of it in a proper garbage receptacle.

  When to measure

The surveys can be done just once, or they can be repeated and done at different beaches to provide comparative data. They can also be combined with beach cleanups see the next activity.

What will the measurements show


Patches of oil on the beach at
Long Bay, Beef Island, British
Virgin Islands, 1991.

The measurements will show first of all the total amounts and different types of debris at a particular beach, and if repeated at different times of the year, they will show variations over time.

Discuss the possible origins of the materials collected. Divide the materials into three groups:

  • group 1: debris that came from the sea, e.g. fishing floats, plastics with labels showing they were made in a different country;
  • group 2: debris that came from careless beach users or nearby communities, e.g. cigarette filters, styrofoam containers;
  • group 3: debris that might have come from either group 1 or 2, e.g. pieces of rope and timber, packing material.

Discuss which group is largest and why.

If you measure debris at different times of the year you might be able to relate the amounts of various categories of debris to weather events. Again it might be possible to relate the amount of debris and the various categories of debris to wave and weather conditions (see Chapter 9). For instance, tarballs might only appear at certain times of the year. Figure 15 shows a sample graph of some debris surveys conducted at different times of the year and the graph shows large increases in the volume of debris after a hurricane passed over the island in September.

Figure 15
Bar graph showing beach debris changes.

You can also discuss how to inform beach users and the rest of the community about the negative impacts of littering and to encourage them to keep the beaches clean. Chapter 12 describes some actions taken by a primary school in Dominica after undertaking a debris survey.

Activity 7.2   Conducting a beach cleanup







Debris piled up at
the back of the beach
at Morne Rouge,
Grenada, 1999.

Beach cleanups can be done at any time of the year. You might also want to consider taking part in the International Beach Cleanup organized by the Ocean Conservancy  (formerly the Center for Marine Conservation). They organize beach cleanups in many parts of the world in September each year. The activity focuses on educating and empowering people to become a part of the marine debris solution and consists of data collection (see the data cards referred to in Figure 14) as well as cleaning the beach.

Some points you might want to keep in mind when doing a clean-up activity are the following:

  • Take photos of the beach before and after the cleanup.
  • Combine data collection with the cleanup see activity 7.1.
  • Try and involve students, their parents and nearby communities in the cleanup.
  • Encourage everyone to wear gloves and not to touch any potentially dangerous items.
  • Provide food and drink.
  • Take into account the temperature at the beach; it may be best to conduct a cleanup early in the day when it is cooler.
  • Ensure there are sufficient garbage bags.
  • Make arrangements in advance for the garbage and debris to be removed to a proper waste disposal site.
  • Inform the press to get maximum publicity.
  • Make the activity fun.


Start     Chapter 8

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