woman holding beach trash

Barcaloungers, toilet bowls, rubber boots, pieces of fishing net, truck tires, industrial tubing, milk crates, vinyl siding, and thousands and thousands of cigarette butts—these are but some of the items found during Massachusetts COASTSWEEP cleanups.

COASTSWEEP is part of an annual event to raise awareness and clean beaches from Boston to Bimini. The International Coastal Cleanup organized by Ocean Conservancy in Washington, DC, brings hundreds of thousands of volunteers to beaches, lakes, and streams worldwide to remove marine debris—trash, fishing line, and any other human-made items—and collect data on the specific types of debris being found to help identify and address the behaviors that cause the debris.

In Massachusetts, volunteers have been pitching in to clean up stretches of beaches, marshes, seafloor, and riverbanks since 1987 as part of COASTSWEEP. This Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) event began with 391 volunteers who collected almost two tons of debris along 40 miles of coastline. The annual cleanup has grown over the years—in 2016, 2,167 volunteers cleaned 155 miles of coastline, river bank, marsh, seafloor, and lakeshore in Massachusetts—collecting more than 12,600 pounds of debris from 107 locations. Check out the 2016 Cleanups Summary for details on last year's efforts. Also, see the, COASTSWEEP 2016 data sheet pdf format of 2016 COASTSWEEP Cleanup Results
with for a complete list of cleanups and results.

Curious about what volunteers find at a typical cleanup? Usually, more than half of the debris comes from land-based sources when litter is blown or washed directly into the ocean or into rivers, streams, and storm drains that run to the sea. Only about 10 percent of the marine debris comes from ocean-based activities, such as boating and fishing. But it all adds up to an end result of thousands of tons of trash littering the world's oceans and beaches. This list of the top 10 items found along the Massachusetts coast in 2015 (the latest data available) shows the typical types of debris commonly collected during COASTSWEEP.

Top Ten Debris Items for 2015

RankDebris ItemAmount
1Cigarettes/Cigarette Filters31,965
2Plastic Beverage Bottles11,240
3Food Wrappers10,131
4Plastic Bottle Caps8,301
5Other Plastic Bags5,170
7Beverage Cans3,324
8Other Plastic and Foam Packaging2,782
9Metal Bottle Caps2,265
10Glass Beverage Bottles1,847

Dedicated COASTSWEEP Volunteers

The Massachusetts shoreline would look different today if it weren't for the thousands of dedicated COASTSWEEP volunteers who get out there each year and clean up literally tons of trash. And each beach cleanup is headed by a particularly dedicated volunteer, the cleanup coordinator, who organizes all the action at one or more sites. See the How to Get Involved in COASTSWEEP page for details.

Beyond Clean Beaches

COASTSWEEP is more than a beach cleanup. By joining a COASTSWEEP event, volunteers help address future problems by filling out data cards to show what they've collected. At the end of the cleanups, these data cards are sent to Ocean Conservancy in Washington, DC, where the information is entered into a massive database. The data are then used to analyze the local and international trends in marine debris and identify its sources in an effort to reduce the problem in the future.

Whether it is urban trash or abandoned fishing gear, marine debris is more than an eyesore—it can also directly harm sea life and humans. Sea birds, seals, and other animals can be choked, starved, or poisoned when they become entangled or mistake debris for food. Sea turtles are particularly vulnerable and can die after swallowing clear plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish. Beachgoers can injure themselves on glass, wood, or metal while swimming or walking on the sand, and boaters can become stranded when propellers are jammed with fishing line or cooling intakes are clogged with plastic.

For more information about marine debris and how you can help, listen to this COASTSWEEP Podcast, Interview with CZM's Robin Lacey, on the WUMB Commonwealth Journal (9/16/12).