Debris Tracker app adds purpose to cleanups

Picking up trash just became a part of a valuable citizen science project

This week I did something a lot of us do this time of year and—you won’t believe it—it wasn’t crappie fishing or turkey hunting. But wait, don’t stop reading, this too is a subject near and dear to our hearts, or it should be.

Litter collection season is best before the grass gets too tall, the brush leafs out and the mosquitoes get too thick. And this year, boys and girls, we can do it with a really fun—and really important—new tool.

If you’re like me, you pick up a load or two of trash almost every time you go outdoors to your favorite haunts. Litter patrol can feel like a lost cause sometimes, but what if those bits and pieces you pick up can become part of a database that builds year after year and documents just how bad it has become?

For the first time this week, I recorded my “catch” for science with an app called Marine Debris Tracker.

An outfit called the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a coalition of political, industry and conservation leaders, launched a pilot program this month in cities along the country’s second longest waterway aimed at reducing plastic waste that clogs lower-river canals and flows into the ocean. The new app is a big part of that initiative.

By now we all know about plastic pollution and what it’s doing to our oceans. We understand that micro plastics—microscopic stuff in our water left from things that used to be big plastics—are in our inland lakes and rivers too. A disintegrating Walmart bag in Lake Tenkiller doesn’t get as much press as a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, but it is no less relevant.

Seriously though, I’m excited to start tracking debris, to help build that database and to accomplish a little more in picking up litter than just picking up litter.


Being a regular user of apps like eBird and iNaturalist, and one who understands the value of citizen science efforts, I reached out to the Debris Tracker crew after I saw a story about the new initiative in the New Orleans Advocate/Times-Picayune.

I wondered if they were interested in tracks from inland areas, and I got an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Kathryn Youngblood, a research engineer with the Jambeck Research Group and citizen science director for Marine Debris Tracker.

The Mississippi Basin covers 40 percent of the country and Oklahoma is busy part of that basin with the Arkansas and Red Rivers and the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System that all flow toward The Big Muddy.

“Our goal is to pivot this pilot project into a longer term monitoring effort, so it’s hopeful seeing people who are not in the pilot cities expanding this effort beyond the cities that are directly on the river itself,” Youngblood said. “We’re doing this both for the Mississippi River project, cleanup in the river, on the banks and in tributaries but we’re also really excited about data from people just walking in their neighborhood collecting transects of litter.”

All data from the Mississippi River Basin will be included in the pilot project report, she said.

“All of the data also is contributed to our open database with Debris Tracker,” she said. “It’s all publicly accessible so we have a lot of folks using it for research, education, policy decision making and building that bigger picture of plastics pollution, which is incredibly valuable.”

It’s important for Oklahomans to know about the Mississippi project, or MRCTI, because users of the app will select that group—from among several others—before they enter their finds.

“The MRCTI is geared more toward inland waterways,” Youngblood said. “It’s a better fit toward the things you would commonly see in that part of the country.”

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What makes the app unique is it cooperates with groups in customizing lists for community or region-wide clean up and litter tracking efforts.

“We’ve kind of found our niche in this big world of collecting data on marine debris by supporting local organizations with customized lists,” Youngblood said. “So the different lists are different groupings of items based on what they’re finding in their local communities.”

Of the 61 items I collected in the space of an hour Wednesday—98 percent of which were plastic—six happened to be plastic foam QT coffee cups. In the app, then, under the plastics category, I could tap the foam cup icon and make the note “QT coffee cups.” Or I could make a note in “other” within the app.

Sorry QT, the usual Sonic cups just were not present in the slough that day—something sure to change in summer. I honestly expected more beer cans, water bottles and plastic bags, but the QT cups took it on this day.

“We encourage people to do just that, to include brands,” Youngblood said.

The app is about finding sources of plastics pollution and figuring out ways to stem the tide—be they corporate solutions or providing more public trash bins in certain areas. The app will show what is found, when and exactly where. The more we report, the more a picture comes together that shows what is coming from where—before it becomes microscopic bits inside our fish and food.

Communities will have tools to help make good moves to help stem the tide.

“The app is designed to do that, to stop at every piece of trash and record it, because it is really high quality granular geospatial data, which is kind of the gold standard of scientific data on plastic pollution,” she said. “You get that point-specific data of exactly where that piece of trash was at that exact moment.”

If stopping and recording every bit of trash on your litter route sounds like a time killer to you, you’re right. It definitely takes more time—especially for a first-time user of the app. To that I can attest.

But after a first try I already have some personal tips, as well as some from Youngblood. Next time I’ll have one of those nifty garbage grabber things, a bag with an over-the-shoulder strap—and maybe a teenager walking along with quick thumbs. Wait, I’ll put the teenager down in the mud and I’ll take care of the app.

Seriously though, I’m excited to start tracking debris, to help build that database and to accomplish a little more in picking up litter than just picking up litter.

Marine Debris Tracker pick-up tips

TIP #1: Get to know the app first

Take some time at home to review all the information at, step out in the yard or walk your street and do a little test route. (you don’t have to fully submit it, just learn the buttons and icons and how they work).

TIP #2: Tool up

For individual efforts, wearing gloves is not a user-friendly option when operating a mobile app, especially if those gloves will get dirty and wet. It’s only slightly better with bare hands that get muddy and wet. A shoulder-sling bag, a trash picker and a bandana or small towel will help keep your hands clean. Manage your phone by keeping it in a sturdy shirt pocket with a snap or Velcro closure, or carry it in an armband, hiking/running belt, fanny pack or on a lanyard. Add a floating strap (and waterproof case if it isn’t already in one) if you plan to collect in or on the water.

TIP #3: Team up

The ideal way to use the app is to walk with a partner. You pick up the stuff and they operate the app and tally it up as you go. You can trade roles partway through.

TIP #4: Wait and count

Posting a general time and location for your cleanup is OK, too. If you want you can just wait until you’re done and tally up your haul at the end. This is an option, too, if you want to use the online data entry portal later instead of the mobile app.

TIP #5: Cleanup event strategies

Group cleanup organizers use several different strategies that might include a few or all of the above tips, with teaming up being an obvious option. Some group efforts ask participants to log their individual efforts for a half hour at some point during their efforts. “We do ask that you log for at least 30 minutes,” Youngblood said.

TIP # 6: Walk it twice

My chosen area is a flood control channel. Like many such structures around Tulsa it is a bona fide litter magnet. Stuff floats in from the roadways and storm drains or blows in with every strong wind. It’s easy to walk the mowed shoreline, so the next time I do it on my own I’m going to walk out and tally what I see and then pick stuff up as I walk back to the truck.

TIP #7: Be safe (last but not least)

Wear good closed-toe shoes or boots (snakes, thorns and metal trash), wear clothes treated with permethrin for ticks, wear long sleeves and cover the gaps with your DEET mosquito repellent. Wear sunscreen. Wear sunglasses or another eye covering (because things might splash, flip, stab or fly when you least expect it). And when you’re on the water, always, wear your life jacket.


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