Importance of data Importance of data
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Data collection by volunteers is sometimes known as citizen science. You should need little to no training or prior knowledge, meaning anyone can get involved. Data gives us more information on how much litter there is, where it is and what it is made up of, meaning we are more informed when trying to tackle it. With more information collected by volunteers, our understanding is even better for many uses - to understand the scale of the problem, help design and evaluate preventative action, and also inform policy. All the purposes of why data is so important are detailed here.

Need more reasons to collect data? There are other benefits too: it engages more people, increases connection with the local community, is social, is a form of physical exercise, provides new skills and knowledge.

Evidence for policy

Data collected by volunteers has already been used for influencing policy. The Marine Conservation Society’s data contributed to the development of the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) and the Scottish Government’s legislation to ban the supply and manufacture of certain single-use plastic items. In 2022, the data called for DRS to be urgently introduced across the UK and the need for a ban on plastic single-use wet wipes, as well as more monitoring and improvements in the wastewater network.

Trash Free Trails have used the data collected by their volunteers to highlight their disagreement to leave glass drinks containers out of the proposed DRS, call for a ban on disposable vapes and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation for single-use packaging.

Evidence for local action

Data collected by volunteers is the only method of collecting very local information. National datasets are good at understanding the national problems but can’t provide the details in each neighbourhood.

By collecting data at a local level you could see what types of litter are the big problem, perhaps identify where they are coming from and the behaviours leading to litter, and see where it is happening. This can help to inform what interventions would work best. Data collection by a volunteer in the Netherlands located hotspots of litter and was then used by the government to strategically place bins.

Understand litter on different land types which can help identify sources

Data is currently being collected by volunteers on a range of different land types such as beaches, streets and trails. This can tell us what items are affecting what land types. Research by Keep Scotland Beautiful and local authority data tells us that smoking-related items are the most common, and most counted on our streets. However, Trash Free Trails found plastic bottles were the most common item on trails and the Marine Conservation Society found plastic pieces to be the most prevalent litter item on surveyed beaches. This can help to address litter and littering behaviour in these different settings and tell us a bit about where the litter is coming from. To tackle litter it is integral the sources and pathways of litter items are known. Without this, it is likely the issue will remain.

There are still some land types that are less surveyed, such as open spaces, forests and riverine environments.

Brands

Some datasets include information on the brands of litter in our environment, such as Surfers Against Sewage and Trash Free Trails. This information can be used to highlight the sources of litter and campaign to the companies with commonly recorded brands and hold them somewhat responsible.

Scale of the problem

Data on litter helps to paint a national picture on the scale of the problem and date collected over a number of years can help to identify trends and long-term changes.

In 2022 survey data from the Marine Conservation Society and Keep Scotland Beautiful’s LEAMS both suggest that litter levels on beaches and streets showed slight declines in the last year.

Some data collection systems are international, so data immediately makes up part of a greater global picture. Other data is input to global datasets. For example, Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Marine Conservation Society both add marine data into Clean Swell by Ocean Conservancy, a global beach litter collection project.

Although it is widely accepted that litter, or plastic pollution, is a global problem, the sharing of data may be most relevant for the marine environment due to the oceans being a pathway of litter moving in the environment and a source of marine litter in Scotland.

Raise awareness

The datasets created by volunteers allows for more promotion and engagement in litter data; it is shared with the general population as it is picked up in local and national news. Many articles on litter in the UK uses volunteer collected data, providing evidence and reason for journalists to highlight the problems.

Further reading

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