Taking it to the streets: Tackling urban trash pollution through education & action

While several widely accepted trash monitoring protocols exist for waterways and shorelines, less attention has been paid to protocols assessing trash along urban streets. Additionally, marine debris education, activities, and messaging are predominantly catered to coastal areas and the connection to urbanized areas is often lacking. In response, California Sea Grant, in partnership with the Ocean Discovery Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, developed the Urban Trash Education & Community Science Toolkit consisting of a standardized street trash monitoring protocol and hands-on Trash Troop science education activities. The monitoring protocols are intended for community scientists of all ages and backgrounds, and the educational activities are aimed at students grades 8 through 12 for use in formal (classroom) and informal settings (e.g., clubs, scouts, camps, after-school programs). 

An Urban Trash Educational & Community Science Monitoring Toolkit

Students picking up trash in their neighborhood.

The goal of this toolkit is to increase science literacy and improve understanding of the issues surrounding trash pollution to empower students and communities to become a part of the solution.

The street trash monitoring protocol is a community science tool that allows community members and students alike to collect data on the types and amounts of trash items that travel from consumers to city streets and into waterways- and the neighborhood features that may influence trash flows (e.g., types of land use or landscaping). Community scientists can use the protocol to answer questions of interest about trash pollution in their area. A few examples of questions that can be answered include:

  • “What types and amounts of trash ‘escape’ on trash collection day?
  • How effective is street sweeping in reducing street trash accumulations?
  • What are the most common types of trash found near parks after holiday weekends?
  • What types of landscaping best trap common trash items?
  • Where are the hotspots of trash accumulation that can be prioritized during clean-up events? 

The Trash Troop Activities guide students through lessons underlining the problem and the effects of trash pollution, and engages students to think critically about effective solutions. Despite this framework, activities are discrete and can be used individually (one is not needed to understand the next) and can be used with or without the street trash monitoring protocol.These activities vary in length, preparation, and involvement, and are intended to be adaptable for use in both formal and informal learning environments. For ease of use, we have incorporated suggested standards alignment, potential connections across activities, as well as extensions and action projects beyond the classroom. Additional resources, including full unit plans, helpful videos, and other marine debris curriculum, are available below.


Table of Contents 

The Urban Trash Educational Toolkit contains open source and ‘living’ resources and we welcome feedback from users to help improve the products using this Feedback Form

Questions or comments not covered by the form? Please contact us! Theresa Talley (tstalley@ucsd.edu) or Tanya Torres (tatorres@ucsd.edu). 

The Urban Trash Monitoring Protocol

Collect data while you clean up the neighborhood! The standardized protocols (PDF), which consist of instructions and datasheets, can be used with your group to collect and monitor trash along the streets. The protocol offers a flexible, tiered approach to trash monitoring, allowing community scientists to choose the types and amounts of data they collect based on their interests, goals, abilities, and time. 

Students sorting through the urban trash they collected.

The protocol includes 1) a field-based assessment of trash and other neighborhood features that may contribute to trash levels, 2) a web-based assessment of contributing features, and 3) an in-depth quantitative assessment of the types and amounts of trash collected. 

Datasheets for each assessment are downloadable:

  1. Field site assessment sheet (PDF): Assess each block for features that may influence amounts and types of trash, including the slope of the street, ground cover, land uses, and numbers of parked cars and waste bins.
  2. Web site assessment sheet (PDF):  Use Google Earth to record data about the blocks you assess, including calculating geographic coordinates and the lengths of the various land-use types.
  3. Quantitative trash sheet (PDF): Record the types and amounts of trash collected with the level of detail increasing with each of four tiers of information.


Urban Trash Troop Activities


The Problem

Students using Google Earth to explore rivers of the world
Students using Google Earth to explore their surroundings.

Watershed Flows  – Build a city, trash it up, and visualize how trash and contaminants move through a watershed after precipitation events.

Remote Sensing with Google Earth  –Become familiar with Google Earth while learning how trash makes its way from our streets to nearby waterways.

Trash Can Audit – Assess the contents of your trash can to see the types and amounts of waste we generate, and how much is misplaced, preventing proper disposal of materials.


The Effects

Students conducting street trash survey
Students picking up street trash.


Sink or Float? – explore the properties of plastic trash and see how they behave in the marine environment.

Urban Litter Scavenger Hunt – see the effects of trash on an area by trying to find all of the items on this scavenger hunt.

Urban Trash Monitoring – understand where, how much, and what kinds of debris are present in your environment using this activity that introduces the Urban Trash Monitoring Protocol.





The Solutions

Students shopping for plastic-free lunches
Students shopping for plastic-free lunches.

From Trash to Treasure – upcycle plastic bags that would simply be disposed of while creating art and learning about the properties of materials.

Plastic-free Lunch – get the chance to make real-life choices and practice making plastic-free purchases for lunch. 

Start a Movement! – motivate people in your community to help solve the marine debris issue by creating your very own behavior change campaign!

Upcycled Arts & Crafts – repurpose common trash materials through upcycling ‘waste’ plastics into arts and crafts.

The Final Straw (PDF) – Take a stand against plastic by making a pledge to change one aspect of daily life that uses a lot of plastic.

Building a Science Identity

Student reflecting on future career aspirations
Student reflecting on future career aspirations.


Career Quiz (PDF) – Explore possible future careers by taking this RIASEC quiz.

Who Are Scientists? – Gauge the changes in young people's perceptions of scientists by having them work in groups to depict a “typical” scientist.

What Is Science? – Discuss and illustrate the basics of the scientific process to establish a baseline of understanding through an experiment.

Science Stems – Encourage reflection and assess learning and changes in perception by completing these sentence stems.




Related Marine Debris Videos

Additional Marine Debris Curriculum