Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Monitoring Project

Santa Cruz County Marine Debris Tracking

Principal Investigator(s)

  • Laura Kasa
    Save Our Shores
Start Date: April 01, 2007

Marine debris is a widespread problem in all of the world's oceans, however there is no consistent tracking of the types of debris entering the world's oceans. In an effort to develop baseline data, which will help government and non-profit organizations measure the effectiveness of their litter abatement programs, Save Our Shores has developed a marine debris tracking system. This system has been in use since April 2007, but was redesigned in 2008 by a statewide steering committee so that it can be used by organizations across California. The system is also compatible with the International Coastal Cleanup Day data set. Using a standardized data card, volunteers collect quantitative and qualitative information about debris found during beach and river cleanups and then report the data to an online clearing house. Save Our Shores manages and synthesizes the data and makes it available to the general public, organizations and government officials via the SOS website or by request. Portions of this project have been funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the California State Coastal Conservancy.

Save Our Shores uses these marine debris data to document trends in the type, amount and distribution of debris across beaches and some river sites within the reach of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. SOS incorporates the data into school educational presentations and outreach to the general public. SOS also reports data such as persistently problematic materials and highly impacted areas to local government bodies to inform decision making processes. Lastly, SOS provides these data to partnering organizations, government agencies, and the general public by publishing data quarterly to our website and on an as needed basis by requests from individuals.

For more information about this program, contact:

Summary to Date

SOS began collecting marine debris data at beach cleanups in April 2007. We found that marine debris is ubiquitous on all beach and river sites monitored. See Table 1 for cleanup results.

In 2008, SOS began collecting marine debris data at river cleanups in addition to beach cleanups. SOS also worked with the California Coastal Commission (CCC) to spearhead a steering committee of organizations that coordinate beach and river cleanups across California. This steering committee researched existing marine debris data cards and compiled information from organizations that currently run cleanups, ultimately creating a new marine debris data card that would work across a variety of cleanups (beach vs. river, rural vs. suburban vs. urban, etc.). This new data card enables localized efforts to begin collecting a standardized data set that feeds into a statewide data pool. The new data card was also designed to maximize compatibility with the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup Day data card, which is the largest marine debris data set to date.

In January 2009, SOS began to use the new data card at all cleanups and also distributed the data card to several partner organizations conducting cleanups in the Monterey Bay region. SOS also created an online system that allows partner organizations to report their marine debris data after cleanups. This online reporting system and all marine debris data are available through the SOS website. See Figure 1 for a sample of the marine debris data card.

SOS is continuing to work with the CCC to secure funding for a statewide database that could house marine debris data collected at cleanups across California. Additionally, SOS will continue to work with the CCC to distribute the new data card to the broadest audience of organizations possible.

Monitoring Trends

  • General trends in the marine debris data collected at these cleanups show: The top five items (measured as the total number of individual items) found on beaches, in order from most common to least common, are cigarette butts, unidentifiable plastic pieces, plastic bags, unidentifiable Styrofoam pieces, and fireworks.
  • The top five items (measured as the total number of individual items) found on rivers, in order from most common to least common, are unidentifiable plastic pieces, plastic bags, cigarette butts, unidentifiable glass pieces, and paper products.
  • Plastic materials account for the majority of debris found (measured as individual items).
  • River cleanup sites are the dirtiest sites in terms of pounds of debris removed per cleanup. The types of debris found during river cleanups include larger items such as furniture, appliances, car parts and construction waste, which indicates dumping activities. Beach cleanup debris is comprised of mostly plastic food packaging materials and other plastic materials associated with recreational activities.


Collecting baseline marine debris data is important for two reasons. First, the sources of marine debris are widely varied. Accurate data can give us clues to the most impactful sources and allow us to target specific behaviors that create the most marine debris. Examples of this type of work are the polystyrene food packaging and plastic bag ban ordinances that city, county and state governments are considering. Continuing to collect marine debris data in the future will give us a way of evaluating the impact of these ordinances on reducing such debris.

Secondly, establishing baseline data allows organizations and jurisdictions to measure the effectiveness and impact of education, outreach, and prevention efforts. We know the majority of marine debris is comprised of plastic materials (60% or more) and comes from land based sources, predominantly non-point source pollution. Widespread education and outreach efforts are key pieces to prevention efforts that reduce the amount of debris. However, traditionally it is very difficult to measure these types of efforts. Baseline marine debris data can help us see trends over time that can give us important clues as to whether or not these prevention efforts are having an impact.

Another important part of the discussion around marine debris data that must be taken into consideration is the accuracy of the data. There are many factors that complicate the process of collecting data. These factors include non-regular cleanup and data collection schedules, variations in the strength of the volunteer force at each cleanup (volunteer hours per area cleaned), consistent turn-over of the volunteer force (many volunteers only participate once or twice), and overlapping cleanup efforts (i.e. volunteers vs. maintenance crews) and the variations in the cleanup methods used (i.e. maintenance crews do not collect data). Additionally, this data set is in its initial stages, which makes it hard to discern trends. The data set will become more valuable the longer the sites are monitored and as the area monitored expands (Santa Cruz County vs. Monterey Bay region vs. California).

Study Parameters

  • Debris

Study Methods

• Beach and river cleanups are organized using a variety of volunteer recruitment methods:
o SOS conducts monthly beach and river cleanups that are open to the general public. We recruit volunteers for these cleanups through advertising the cleanups in a variety of online calendars, through the SOS monthly E-Bulletin, which is distributed to approximately 1,000 people, and through calendar listings in several local newspapers. Sometimes local community groups, school groups, or businesses join these cleanups and recruit volunteers from their members.
o SOS runs an Adopt-A-Beach program, which consists of a local community group, business, or school group adopting a specific beach site by committing to clean that site at least 3 times each year with their volunteers.
o SOS conducts one-time, private cleanups with local community groups, businesses, or school groups, as requested.
• Cleanups happen with varying frequency and with varying volunteer capacity across beach and river sites. Most cleanups happen in Santa Cruz County, however SOS and partnering organizations also conduct some beach and river cleanups in Monterey and coastal San Mateo Counties.

• Every cleanup is led by a SOS staff member or a Cleanup Leader who has gone through one of SOS’ Cleanup Leader training programs.
o SOS runs a Sanctuary Steward volunteer training program. Approximately 40 community members complete the program each year. The 4 month long program consists of weekly lectures, field trips, and in field training sessions. Some Stewards specialize in leading cleanups; they attend a marine debris lecture and shadow a SOS staff member at one or two cleanups. Through these trainings Stewards learn how to properly lead a cleanup, including how to teach cleanup volunteers about the issue of marine debris and data collection methods and how to report cleanup data to SOS staff using our online reporting system.
o At least once per year SOS staff lead a one day Cleanup Leader training session for community members, which includes a marine debris lecture, how to properly lead a cleanup including data collection techniques and how to report cleanup data to SOS staff.
• All cleanups consist of a volunteer registration period followed by a safety briefing and a cleanup procedures demonstration given by the Cleanup Leader. During the cleanup procedures demonstration all volunteers are trained how to properly identify the types of marine debris items that they collect during a cleanup and to use a data card to track the total number of each item that they collect. For Adopt-A-Beach groups, returning volunteers are given a refresher training as needed.

• Cleanup Leaders collect all data cards from the volunteers at the end of the cleanup, and check the data cards for accuracy. Then they total all data cards for each cleanup and report the cleanup totals to SOS staff using SOS’ online reporting system.

• Staff members from partnering organizations are trained directly by SOS staff members and are the responsible parties at their organization for conducting volunteer trainings to ensure proper data collection techniques and timely reporting of collected data using SOS’s online reporting system.

• SOS online reporting system uses an online form built in Google Documents. Cleanup Leaders fill out and submit one form for each cleanup that they lead. These forms are automatically compiled into an Excel spreadsheet that lives online (in Google Documents) and acts as a queue for entering data into the master database. The master database is built in Microsoft Excel and lives on the SOS server. On a monthly basis, SOS staff members retrieve data from the online queue, check the data for accuracy, clear up discrepancies with Cleanup Leaders, and enter the data into the master database. On a quarterly basis, SOS staff members analyze the data and publish updated graphs to the SOS website. Data are also available upon request.

Figures and Images

Figure 1. Save Our Shore (SOS) volunteers collecting marine debris data.

Figure 2. SOS data card user.

Figure 3. Marine debris data card. To download a copy of the card, see link below.

Figure 4. Top 10 trash items that were collected by Save Our Shore volunteers from 2007 to 2013.

Figure 5. The average number of plastic bags collected during cleanups between 2007 and 2013.

Figure 6. From 2008 to 2013, the average number of styrofoam food containers collected per beach cleanup. Note the decline since such containers were banned in the county.

Figure 7. An annual average number of cigarette butts collected by SOS volunteers per cleanup.

Figure 8. Annual average number of plastic straws collected by SOS volunteers per cleanup.

Figure 9. Annual average number of pounds of trash and recyclables collected by SOS volunteers per cleanup.


  • Marine Debris Card
    Click on the link to download a PDF version of the Marine Debris Card used by SOS and partnering organizations.
    76 KB PDF