Addressing Barriers to Reducing Plastic Marine Debris in Cleveland, Ohio

Volunteers clean up a beach and pose next to the boat they built from marine debris at the Great Lake Erie Boat Float in 2014 and 2015.

The City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the NOAA Marine Debris Program partnered to identify barriers to the reduction and proper disposal of plastic grocery bags, water bottles, and cigar tips— three common types of marine debris found on Great Lakes beaches in the Cleveland area.

Type of Project: Marine Debris Prevention through Education and Outreach Grant

Region: Great Lakes

Project Dates: August 2015 - March 2018

Who is involved?
The City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, with the support of a NOAA Marine Debris Program Prevention through Education and Outreach Grant, teamed up with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Keep America Beautiful, Ohio Sea Grant, and thunder::tech to identify barriers to the reduction of plastic consumer product use and to develop a community-based social marketing campaign to overcome these barriers in Northeast Ohio.

What is the project and why is it important?
Single-use plastic water bottles, plastic grocery bags, and plastic cigar tips make up 50% of all of the litter collected on Northeast Ohio beaches. These plastics can enter Lake Erie in a number of ways: through ineffective or improper waste management, intentional or accidental dumping and littering on shorelines or at sea, or through stormwater runoff. Once plastics enter the marine environment, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which can be ingested by numerous species. Recent studies have highlighted concerns that microplastics can absorb toxins and, when ingested, these toxins can enter the food chain and disrupt the normal functioning of animals. In addition to its impacts on wildlife, plastic marine debris can have negative impacts on the tourism industry, the fisheries industry, and can present hazards in the water to recreational users such as swimmers and divers.

Through this project, the City of Cleveland and its partners worked with a community-based social marketing expert to conduct research on social barriers to behavior change concerning these plastic types. A pilot social marketing campaign to reach target audiences was then developed and implemented following the identification of such barriers. This campaign used various communication tools and methods including outreach at unique events such as the Great Lake Erie Boat Float. The ultimate goal of this project was to achieve lasting behavior change in Cleveland residents that will reduce littering, reduce the use of plastics, and increase the proper disposal of plastics to ultimately reduce marine debris.