Can This Free App Make Beach Cleanups Fun?

Track what you pick up to earn badges—and give ocean scientists useful data.

September 14, 2017
ocean cleanup app
Photograph courtesy of Ben_Hicks/CleanSwell

Usually, when I head to Venice Beach, I’m looking forward to splashing in the waves and relaxing on the sand. But on my latest trip out from where I live in Los Angeles, I had a different goal in mind: I was hoping to find some beach trash.

Once I was on the sand, it only took about a minute for me to find a broken Styrofoam cup. I put it in the trash bag I brought with me, and opened my app to click an icon with a cup on it. As I continued to walk, I scanned the ground for wrappers, and discovered that at first glance, it’s hard to tell the difference between a piece of white Styrofoam and a piece of shell. Plastic food wrappers, bottle caps, and straws are much easier to spot. 


My sudden eagerness to find old potato chip bags, abandoned beach toys, and plastic bottle caps didn't mean I was going crazy—I had just downloaded the CleanSwell app and wanted to test it out before International Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday, September 16, 2017. CleanSwell was developed by the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program to make it easier for volunteers to report what they find during beach cleanups, and for people all over the country to help clean up. 

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The International Coastal Cleanup, now in its 32nd year, is a massive annual event. Last year, more than half a million people participated, covering 15,000 miles, and picking up over 18 million pounds of trash. According to Allison Schutes, associate director of the Trash Free Seas program, from the very beginning, International Coastal Cleanup Day was different from other beach cleanups, because they asked volunteers to record what they were picking up. Since the event began in 1985, they estimate they've collected a whopping 228,919,809 pounds of trash. (Here are 8 ways to reuse your plastic bags so they don't end up as beach trash.)

At first, they used clipboards to track findings, but as times changed, the organization realized their methods needed to evolve. Schutes said, “After thirty years of pen and paper data collection, we figured it was time to move into the 21st century.”


Want to learn about how to compost instead of trash your food scraps? Check out the video below.

Creating a game out of ocean cleanup

foam cup
Photograph courtesy of Lisa Beebe

While CleanSwell has a serious purpose, it’s also more fun to use than a clipboard, because it includes a gamification element. Schutes said, “From my vantage point, it’s more about the data and where the data are coming from, but when we were building the app, that was one of our key components—making sure that we integrated elements that would be familiar and fun for the user.” (Here's more on some absolutely ridiculous items found during ocean pollution cleanup.)

For inspiration as they developed CleanSwell, they looked to other apps they used on a regular basis, like Untappd, which encourages users to visit different breweries and try different types of beer. Through that app, you go in and log the different beer that you’re having, and you get badges for trying different varieties or different locations. CleanSwell has similar functionality. As users collect trash, they earn badges with ocean-inspired names like “Sea Turtle Saver” and “Weight of the Whale” as a way to track their personal progress. Once you’re finished a beach collecting session, there’s just one more click to send your findings to the Ocean Conservancy. 


Related: Jack Johnson's Incredible Sailing Trip To Clean Up Ocean Trash

phone screenshot
Photograph courtesy of Lisa Beebe

When you open the app on your phone, you get a screen with icons for twenty different kinds of marine debris. All you have to do to report your findings is click the appropriate icon for each piece of trash. Most of the trash I came across fit into the specific categories, which include things like cigarette butts, plastic grocery bags, drinking straws, and foam pieces. The categories reflect the Ocean Conservancy’s expertise: after so many years running beach cleanups, they have a good sense of what’s out there. They also include general options such as “Other Packaging” and “Other Trash” for debris that doesn’t fit into a category, like the broken piece of 2x4 lumber I found half-buried in the sand.

Related: Why There's A High Chance Your Sea Salt Is Contaminated With Plastic

Feedback has been positive for the fledgling app: “We’re getting better reception from volunteers when we’re asking them to record data if they can use the app on their cell phone that they have in their pockets anyway, rather than lugging out their trash bag, their gloves, a clipboard, a pen, and a paper data form,” said Schutes.

In addition to making it easier to keep records about the trash that volunteers are removing from beaches, the app provides the organization with other useful information. For example, Schutes said, “The app uses the innate functionality of the GPS in the phone to create this track of where volunteers are cleaning. On the technical side, what that does is it gives us a really good look at the distance in which volunteers clean.” 

Related: The Truth About Recycling In America 

It also allows people to volunteer on their own, at any beach, at any time, and still contribute data to the Ocean Conservancy's efforts. The CleanSwell app works all year, so it’s worth downloading even if you can’t participate in Saturday’s International Coastal Cleanup Day. It's available on the App Store and Google Play.

Related: How This Woman Fit A Year’s Worth Of Trash Into A Mason Jar—And You Can, Too

Using the app doesn’t take away my sadness and frustration about all the garbage that either washes ashore or is left behind by beach-goers, but I appreciated having a way to report my findings. As I tested CleanSwell, I remembered a walk a friend and I took on the beach last summer. He kept checking his phone, and when I asked him about it, he admitted he was playing Pokemon Go. As we walked, he was collecting creatures he saw using the game’s augmented reality feature.

CleanSwell isn’t that fancy—there’s no augmented reality here—but it doesn’t matter, because with this app, you’re collecting things that exist in the real world. When you pick them up, you’re not just earning badges, you’re giving the Ocean Conservancy useful data, and making your local environment a little bit cleaner. That’s pretty swell.