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  • Litter Intelligence is a long-term programme run by Sustainable Coastlines in collaboration with the Ministry for the Environment, Department of Conservation and Statistics New Zealand. It aims to create a grassroots solution to litter in New Zealand. A national litter database – a first in New Zealand – is being established to record not only litter but also to track trends. The goal is to be able to use this data to change local behaviour, seeing which measures are the most effective in reducing rubbish long term.

    Rights: Sustainable Coastlines, CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ

    Litter Intelligence

    Litter Intelligence is a citizen science project that aims to establish a New Zealand litter database. To support the project Sustainable Coastlines, the charity behind the project, offers workshops on litter collection and is rolling out a litter education curriculum for schools. Funded by the Ministry for the Environment’s Waste Minimisation Fund, the project also works alongside collaborators from the Department of Conservation and Statistics New Zealand.


    Reach: New Zealand, regional

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to further develop or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Gather and interpret data, Use evidence, Engage with science

    Science focus: pollution, environmental science, plastics, properties of materials, sustainability

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Litter can be grouped into different types based on its properties.
    • Recycling codes and practices are based on the properties of the materials.
    • We can recycle some kinds of rubbish more easily than others.
    • Litter is harmful to the environment.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Rights: Sustainable Coastlines, CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ

    Cleaning up the coast

    School children in Mount Maunganui take part in a Sustainable Coastlines Phoenix Mt Maunganui Clean-up.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • categorise a variety of different litter types based on their properties
    • interpret visual representations of data relating to litter types collected
    • explain about the source and major contributors of litter in their own area
    • apply their knowledge to suggest a variety of strategies for getting rid of particular types of litter in their own area.

    About The Litter Project

    A 2018 World Bank report ranked New Zealanders as the tenth highest consumers of urban waste per capita in the world, producing over 3.6 kg of waste per person every day.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Kura Toi Tangata Faculty of Education

    Discarded cigarette butts

    Cigarette butts are one of the most most common forms of litter in the world and they are not biodegradeable – the filters are made of plastic cellulose acetate fibres that trap nicotine and tar. Butts can take 18 months to 10 years to fully degrade. The used butts are often washed out to sea after been flicked on the ground and a study has found one cigarette butt in a litre of water is enough to kill fish.

    The Litter Intelligence Project was launched in May 2018 and is a long-term programme led by the charity Sustainable Coastlines aiming to create a grassroots solution to litter in New Zealand. This national litter monitoring programme is being run in collaboration with the Ministry for the Environment, Statistics New Zealand and the Department of Conservation. It is funded by the Ministry for the Environment’s Waste Minimisation Fund.

    Sustainable Coastlines will lead the:

    • roll out of a litter education curriculum for schools
    • establishment of a national litter database
    • scheme to bring these programmes to communities around New Zealand.

    Collaboration is crucial. You could say that tangata whenua are New Zealand’s original Citizen Scientists. They have the baseline knowledge – mātauranga Māori – on how our coastlines should be; litter-free. Litter is a major threat to Aotearoa and we now need urgent and large-scale action.

    Camden Howitt, Sustainable Coastlines co-founder

    It is based on the United Nations Environment Programme marine debris survey methodology, which will enable an accurate picture of the litter problem in New Zealand to be developed. By working to a United Nations Environment Programme methodology, the data will be collected at the highest standard of scientific rigour, allowing it to be used for national, regional and international reporting, including progress against UN Sustainable Development Goals.

    This kind of initiative is exactly what our planet needs – something simple but effective that can easily be adopted at grass-roots level to make a difference, empowering every community to keep their environment clean and make the world a better place for future generations.

    Brad Smith, President, Microsoft

    Sustainable Coastlines will work with community groups and organisations to conduct beach litter surveys at a minimum of 108 beach sites across Aotearoa, conducted at least 4 times each year for 3 years, starting in 2018. There is a phone app to enter the litter data, including litter categories, into a national database.

    Rights: Sustainable Coastlines, CC BY-NC 3.0 NZ


    Litter Intelligence is using an official litter data collection methodology to ensure scientific rigour.

    Training and the tools required will be provided to allow groups to take part as citizen scientists, conducting regular litter surveys at their selected local beach sites and loading the litter data into a new, easy-to-use nationwide litter citizen science platform/app developed specifically for the project. This platform includes a solutions database and some litter data visualisation tools. All the litter data collected is freely available to the groups involved as well as to the wider public and decision makers and is New Zealand’s first national litter database. Having long-term data will not only assist in proving the litter problem but will also help with prioritising solutions.

    Technology plays a critical role in ensuring that data collected by citizen scientists is recognised as credible and useable to inform decision-making worldwide.

    Camden Howitt, Sustainable Coastlines co-founder

    The Sustainable Coastlines citizen science workshops provide an opportunity to learn more about the project, the data collection methodology, health and safety planning and the reporting requirements.

    See the Education section on the Litter Intelligence website for information on how to make the most of this programme with your students. The programme is based on the inquiry cycle model developed by the Department of Conservation where the learner is at the centre of learning. The goal is for learners to form and develop an inquiry to investigate aspects of marine litter pollution and build a depth of understanding through questioning, thinking and research.

    Related content

    Plastic is a wicked problem. It’s incredibly useful, but it’s also a huge environmental issue. A helpful resource is Thinking about plastic – planning pathways which includes our interactive planning pathway – use this to begin a cross-curricular look at plastics.

    New Zealand science organisations Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor have created reports and resources to help us rethink plastic.

    Read the Connected article Down the drain to see how students in Petone, Lower Hutt, took action to prevent rubbish from entering their local marine environment.

    We have curated information from the Building Science Concepts Book 60 Rubbish: How Do We Deal with It? for use in the early to middle primary years.

    The article Material World – Recycling and biodegradability curates Hub resources into the following topics:

    • The issue of waste
    • Modern landfill systems
    • Biodegradability, recycling and reuse
    • Plastic recycling

    Citizen science

    Planning for students to be citizen scientists provides pedagogical support for educators interested in contributing to an online citizen science project.

    Backyard Battle and Mizuiku Upstream Battle are two citizen science projects run by Keep New Zealand Beautiful. The aim is to collect and audit litter to help provide a better understanding of the pathways and root causes of pollution in Aotearoa.

    This case study details how a similar project was used with students in year 2–4.

    Litterati is a similar online citizen science (OCS) project. It is an international project that allows participants to photograph, upload and tag litter in their own area.

    Global Earth Challenge is an international project that has a section on plastic pollution.

    Useful links

    Find out more about Sustainable Coastlines and their citizen science workshops.

    The Ministry of Education’s Building Science Concepts Book 61: Recycling: New Uses for Rubbish supports the understanding that materials can be classified by their properties.

    Use the lesson plans, interactive worksheets and other resources in the Keep New Zealand Beautiful (KNZB) Kiki Kiwi & Friends ‘Litter Less’ programme for 5–11-year-olds.

      Published 11 April 2019, Updated 28 August 2019 Referencing Hub articles
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