Creating a Social Norm: A Student-Designed Program to Reduce Marine Debris

A cleanup group posing in front of a beach.

Sea Education Association teamed up with the Falmouth Water Stewards and the NOAA Marine Debris Program and reduced the use of single-use plastic items by engaging students in lessons on marine debris, social science research, and the creation of a local campaign to educate the community and promote behavior change.

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

Region: Northeast

Project Dates: August 2016 – July 2018

Who is involved?
Sea Education Association (SEA), an educational organization known to lead college exchange semesters partially spent sailing and conducting research at sea, engaged students in marine debris education and outreach within the local community of Falmouth, Massachusetts. Funded by a NOAA Marine Debris Program Marine Debris Prevention through Education and Outreach grant, SEA students and local partners at the Falmouth Water Stewards (FWS) created a local campaign that addressed behavior change related to the use of single-use plastics, beginning with the “Skip the Straw” campaign led by a group of local middle school students.

What is the project and why is it important?
Single-use plastics are among the top debris items found during beach cleanups throughout the country. Plastic utensils, straws, bottles, and other products that are designed to be used once and then discarded unfortunately too-often make their way into our marine environment. However, there are several alternatives to using and disposing of these types of products. One approach is to encourage changes in behavior (choosing to use fewer of these items) that could lead to new social norms.

What were the project results?
SEA and FWS worked to reduce single-use plastic waste and encouraged these behavior changes through student efforts and a local campaign. SEA also incorporated marine debris education into their existing interdisciplinary curricula which engaged students from colleges across the country in the marine debris issue. Based on these lessons, research on the subject of behavior change, and work by the local “Skip the Straw” campaign, SEA and FWS worked to create a broader campaign to educate the local community about marine debris and promoted behavior change to reduce unnecessary single-use plastics. 

Students developed and used communication tools that reached various audiences, such as surveys and scorecards for restaurant owners and managers. Ten restaurants in Woods Hole, Massachusetts posted signage supporting the “Trash Shouldn't Splash” single-use plastic reduction message and over 200 volunteers (593 volunteer hours) participated in nine beach cleanups. The Trash Shouldn’t Splash program also created a toolkit that is available for download and provides materials to help others to implement their own plastic reduction program in their local community. In addition, students organized and participated in beach cleanups that raised marine debris awareness.

This project engaged 135 SEA Semester students through instruction in SEA courses. Additionally, over 1,000 K-12 students were engaged via classroom visits to elementary and middle schools.