Teaching the class

Here you can find all the materials you will need to teach a course on marine debris– click the links to download a course syllabus and a discussion guide for each text.

Notes on the class

I taught the class for the first time in the spring semester of 2016. To take advantage of this unique opportunity, I combined two sections: an upper-level Politics course and an Honors seminar. The combined group (a total of 35 students) met together, shared some readings, had some different readings, and worked together on beach cleanups. We visited four beaches in three trips, for a total of no more than eight hours of fieldwork. In this time we picked up over 1600 individual pieces of marine debris.

Notes on the readings

I selected four texts for my classes. All students read:

Weis, Judith (2014) Marine Pollution: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

My Politics students selected one of:

Freinkel, Susan (2011) Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gleick, Peter (2011) Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water. Washington, DC: Island Press.

My Honors students read:

Bergmann, Melanie, Gutow, Lars, Klages, Michael (Eds) (2015) Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

  • The Bergman book is incredibly readable and well-written, but also delves very deeply into research on marine debris. In some cases, the detailed chapters are more information than needed for an undergraduate college course. That said, it was a great source for my honors students, who are capable of reading scholarly publications. I would also note that not all scholarly work is as readable, clear, and unhampered by superfluous jargon as this edited volume (See what I did there? With the superfluous jargon?). In my opinion, the best chapters for an overview include Chapters 1 (A brief history of marine litter research), 2 (Global distribution, composition and abundance of marine litter), and 7 (Microplastics in the marine environment: sources, consequences, and solutions).

I recommend all of these texts and found them to be truly useful and a good match for the class and students.

  • Both Gleick and Freinkle I will use again as they provide exceptional context for the issue and tie in how and why plastics are such an integral part of human society. They also help to explain consumption patterns.


  • Weis provides a clear introduction not only to marine litter, but also to water pollution writ large. The format of this book, posed as a series of questions with answers, took me a little while to get used to—but over time I grew to love it. I found this format perfect for dividing the class into small groups and assigning creative work to share with the class (aka my Tweet it, Bump it, Haiku it, Draw it assignments).

What I will do differently next time: To allow for discussions including different groups with different readings, I had students present a brief summary of each chapter in Gleick, Freinkle (for non-honors students), and Bergman (honors students). In retrospect, this wasted a lot of class time that would have been better spent on group discussions or other activities.

Getting out in the field

Check with local agencies (fish and wildlife, your state environmental department or agency) to get permission to conduct a beach cleanup on public lands. Though lands are public, you MUST have permission from land managers and most critically, you need to be certain your work does not disturb nesting wildlife.

Due to the timeline of this award, it was necessary to teach my class in the Spring semester, which is not an ideal time to plan outdoor excursions in New England. Every one of our collection days was impacted by weather, and two of our trips had to be called off due to extreme weather. Most disappointingly, my students were unable to take a canoe trip to collect from a coastal island due to snowstorms and high winds. The advantage of collecting in winter in Connecticut is that our work did not overlap with wildlife nesting seasons. If the faculty member can be open-minded and flexible, this type of course is possible even in winter in Connecticut.

We followed the protocols of the NOAA Shoreline Survey Field Guide (also linked on the Literature page). Use this guide to ensure your work is conducted in a replicable, comparable scientific manner.

What I will do differently next time: I wanted as many students as possible, but 35 students were not necessarily needed to run an effective beach cleanup. In each case, a group of 15-20 students showed up on the day. This was a workable number that allowed us to maximize our effectiveness without making the task of managing a group overwhelming.