Public Lab Research note

Trash-tography: Mapping Trash in Creeks through Photography

by ikcal11 new contributor with cjellis , khurst , kskadberg | May 10, 2020 22:20 10 May 22:20 | #23597 | #23597

Is your neighborhood creek littered with trash? Is there a way to measure how much trash there is within the creek? Can you involve elementary and middle school students to measure this trash in a safe and fun way?

Who we are

The Trash-tography project was developed by the fourth-graders of Carver Elementary School, San Diego, as part of a community science project of the Thriving Earth Exchange program. The elementary school teacher, Kristen Hurst, aims to raise awareness about the amount of trash in the neighborhood creek. She also wants to involve her students in this effort so that they can become stewards of their local environment.

Thriving Earth Exchange connected Kristen to a group of scientists. As a team, we modified the SWAMP Rapid Trash Assessment protocol to make it accessible to kids. With guidance from the team, Kristen's students conducted three on-site trash assessments of the Chollas Creek using this survey. We lay out the full story of our project here.

What is Trash-tography?

Trash-tography is method of visual survey to measure trash in creeks. This survey (materials below) is based on the Rapid Trash Assessment Protocol, developed by the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP) of the California State Water Resources Control Board. The survey assigns scores to sections of the creek depending on the amount, toxicity and source of trash. We have modified the original survey to make it more accessible to elementary and middle school students. And we have transferred it to a Google form so that it can be operated with digital devices such as iPads or smartphones. The survey can be be done either on-site, or using photos of the creek section itself.

Details of our project

The following is the procedure for conducting trash assessment.

The tools you may need:

  1. A copy of our trash assessment google form.
  2. Digital devices such as ipads or smartphones to access the google form for each survey conductor.
  3. A long measuring tape, with at least 100 feet.
  4. Pins or clipboards to partition the measuring tape into 10 sections.

First, distribute a link to your copy to all the students conducting the survey. For google forms to store your collected data in the same place, a common link must be used. Next, identify a creek location where you can safely conduct a trash assessment over a 100 feet section. Use the measuring tape to lay out 100 ft along the section. Although the original survey is designed for a complete 100 feet section, for elementary school students, it is easier to divide into pieces of length 10 feet each. Each pair of students is given one section to survey, and the results are aggregated at the end.

image description

  • Kirsten Hurst, laying out the 10 feet sub-sections of the 100 feet section.

Once the sections are laid out, take photos of each subsection for record-keeping. The trash assessment can then be done either on the photos, or on-site. Direct the pairs of students to follow the instructions in the Google form. Remind them to record what subsection they are working on in the google form. Help them if they have any questions about definitions of words, such as upstream/downstream, or different materials.

Once the survey is submitted, Google Forms has inbuilt tools to summarize the results.image description

You can conduct surveys at various creek sites, and as often as you prefer to see temporal changes in the amount of trash.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us ( if you have more questions.


Thanks for showing this accessible protocol in action, all the way through to how the visualized data looks at the end - very helpful!

Thanks Liz, we appreciate you checking out our project!

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@ikcal11 has marked @cjellis as a co-author.

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@ikcal11 has marked @kskadberg as a co-author.

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@ikcal11 has marked @khurst as a co-author.

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