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How to use citizen science in litter prevention

Annual birdlife surveys and summer insect counts – just two examples of citizen science at work.

The idea is simple: volunteers collect data which is then analysed by scientists, project participants, or both parties working together.

This data is invaluable – it helps us to understand our environment, gathering large amounts of data at low cost.

So how does citizen science apply to litter? When we know the amounts and types of litter in an area, when they’re littered – and by whom – we can target our efforts much more effectively. 

Citizen science: can it help prevent littering?

Citizen science is a relatively new approach to litter. Statistical proof is still coming in, but the technique is already establishing itself as a great way of raising awareness – and in turn, encouraging participants to take a more active role in prevention.

We can also use citizen science to measure the outcomes of litter prevention projects. When you know what works, you can concentrate your activities where they will have the biggest impact. Success breeds success, keeping the community engaged, long after the data has been collected.

How to use citizen science

Are you interested in starting a litter prevention citizen science initiative, but not sure where to start? Here are three key steps to guide you:

Establish the project

Great things happen in real-life, not behind a computer screen. Get outside and pick up litter. Do it every day. People will stop and ask you questions. That’s the perfect time to talk to them about why litter prevention matters. Don’t forget to take before-and-after pictures of the areas you tidy to inspire your followers to take action too.

Decide on your limits

Start by setting the parameters – exactly what do you want to find out? It’s best to be specific. For example, decide to measure the amount of litter dropped in one street over a weekend.

In focus: Best practice from Keep Britain Tidy’s Great Litter Count

The Great Litter Count brings together volunteers from all over the country. It is the UK’s biggest ever litter count.

Volunteers sign up online. Next step: download the information sheet and data collection form.

The information sheet begins with a reassuring message: we only need 30 minutes of your time. It also explains what items they should and shouldn’t count, and provides simple tick boxes for volunteers to categorise litter by brand.

After they’ve gathered their findings, volunteers log their data on the Keep Britain Tidy website.

Clipboards at the ready

When the day arrives, how do you make sure everything goes to plan?

Guiding the process

Do you have an expert on hand to lead groups of volunteers? Do you set strict standards for data collection? Or do you let volunteers discover their own methods? Decide how much of a hands-on approach you’ll take to managing the process.

In focus: lessons learned from Forth Environment Link’s LandLove

The LandLove project aimed to identify littering and fly-tipping hotspots in Stirlingshire, and recommend interventions based on the findings. The project focused on introducing citizen science methods to volunteers and local communities, giving them the skills to monitor sites and track the progress of any interventions.

A great way to engage communities

Involving local volunteers in research on the project was an excellent way to engage with communities – and encourage ownership of any changes. Although it took time to find people with the right amount of time and commitment to the project, these willing individuals were essential in encouraging others in the community to help out.

Be aware of timeframes, other campaigns, and seasons

The project identified several challenges:

  • The process isn’t quick – it takes time to establish communication channels with the right people in the community; if you can, allow at least two months to raise awareness before going on site
  • People have other priorities – you need to be aware of any similar campaigns or commitmentsthat a community may have
  • Keep people engaged – while there was enthusiasm for litter picks in general, there were fewer volunteers who were keen to do the follow-up surveys and monitoring work (which is essential for the citizen science approach)
  • Outdoor projects might not be so easy in winter – people are much less enthusiastic about surveys and litter picks in colder weather.
Dealing with results, maintaining momentum

Everyone had a productive day collecting data on litter, and there’s a mountain of statistics. But what happens next?

If the results are interesting or surprising, there’s a chance the local media will use them. And don’t forget to shout about it on social media. This helps raise awareness of the problem and gets people interested in your cause.

After it’s all done, it’s important to stay in touch with volunteers, allowing you to create a perfect platform for your next citizen science event.

In focus: how Scottish Canals used citizen science to get results

Scottish Canals used citizen science to engage local schoolchildren with the problem of litter along the canals. Their aim was to move beyond the litter pick, to create a scientifically robust investigation of the sources of litter.

What they did

Scottish Canals teamed up with St Charles’ and St Mary’s Primary Schools in Maryhill, and Kilbowie Primary School in Clydebank. Primary four and five children got the chance to take a more scientific approach to tackling litter on the Forth & Clyde Canal.

Working in partnership with the Glasgow Science Festival, the children were taught how to spot and sample litter on the canal just like a biologist, recording different ‘species’ of litter they found.

The budding citizen scientists got to board the Cleaner Canal science barge. Here they learned to record and analyse the source and type of litter they found, and how it can affect waterway environment and habitats.

What they found

The project got children engaged with the issues around litter, as well as giving them a taste for scientific fieldwork. Surveys taken after the event were full of positives:

  • Pupils said that they cared much more about litter after taking part
  • Over 45% said they learned a lot from the process
  • 72% of the pupils involved really enjoyed the experience

Lessons learned

There were some great ideas in this project. For anyone running a similar campaign, here’s what to bear in mind:

  • Blending scientific techniques with litter picking activities helps build people’s understanding of the real issues around litter
  • This approach can bring together schools, community groups, and local businesses
  • Providing people with a simple measurement framework makes it easier to collect useful data
Citizen science and education

As the work by Scottish Canals demonstrates, citizen science can be a great way to get young people engaged with the problems around litter.

Putting litter prevention on the syllabus

The Eco Schools programme is designed to help schools be more sustainable, and inspire children to engage with environmental problems such as litter.

Over 98% of Scotland’s local authority schools now participate in the initiative . The programme for litter builds on people’s enthusiasm for litter picks, then incorporates citizen science to help children develop literacy and numeracy skills while studying their environment.

As part of the initiative, the project runs a Litter Less campaign. This encourages primary schools and nurseries to investigate litter in their area.

In 2014-15, Litter Less engaged nearly 11,000 young learners through projects like ‘design your own bin’, beach clean-ups, and studies on how litter affects wildlife .

Citizen science and the curriculum for excellence

The Eco-Schools programme can be linked to every area of the Curriculum for Excellence – Scotland’s national curriculum for 3-18 year olds.

This means that schools can use the Eco-Schools resources to make litter prevention an integral part of their teaching.

Good citizen science projects can tackle a number of core skills, including literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing, social studies, and, of course, sciences.

A guide to using citizen science

Watch and share our guide about how to use citizen science.

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