"Citizen scientists" are being recruited for a long-term scheme to monitor litter at more than 100 beaches nationwide.
The drive is part of a Sustainable Coastlines project to reduce litter at a "generational level" and ease the environmental threat posed by plastic.
Ultimately, the charity will choose 108 beaches where data about the type and amount of litter will be collected and fed into a national database.
It believes the problem of litter can't be solved until there is hard information about what washes up.
Sustainable Coastlines has been given $2.7 million by the Ministry for the Environment to set up the database and to develop a litter education curriculum for schools.
It's using a United Nations-developed methodology for the data collection. The methodology is being trialled with input from Statistics New Zealand, the Department of Conservation and Ministry for the Environment to ensure it will work in New Zealand.
Sustainable Coastlines wants individuals and members of hapu, community groups, schools and businesses to volunteer as Citizen Scientists. After training they will collect information and feed it into the database.
"Collaboration is crucial," said charity co-founder Camden Howitt. "Tangata whenua are New Zealand's original Citizen Scientists with the baseline knowledge on how our coastlines should be - litter-free. Litter is a major threat to Aotearoa and we now need urgent and large-scale action."
In a trial at Okahu Bay in Auckland on Tuesday, about 100 people collected 1715 pieces of litter from a 100-metre stretch of beach in one hour. The group included about 80 students from Orakei School, Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage, Environment Minister David Parker, members of Ngati Whatua and staff and trustees from Sustainable Coastlines.
Howitt said Okahu Bay was a city beach monitored by the Auckland Council and cleaned regularly by Sustainable Coastlines and similar organisations.
The amount of litter collected was disappointing but representative of the problem: "This is a beach that looked clean. It's typical unfortunately."
About 80 per cent of the litter was plastic, much of it fragments of containers.
The trial was carried out on World Environment Day – theme: Beat Plastic Pollution - as Sage announced that 12 major businesses operating in New Zealand had signed a declaration to tackle plastic waste.
Sage said scientists had estimated there are already more than 150 million tonnes of plastics in the oceans and, if nothing changes, plastic in oceans will weigh more than their fish by 2050.
Sustainable Coastlines' two-pronged approach is already seeking contractors and advisers to develop and deliver the curriculum and database. Teachers, the Ministry of Education and New Zealand Qualifications Authority are being consulted over the former. Sustainable Coastlines hopes it can be implemented at all schools after training for teachers.
Trials of the Citizen Scientist part of the project, involving six schools in each of Auckland and Wellington, will run from mid-October to mid-December before being extended next year.
All project findings will be publicly available through a purpose-built database and education hub, equipped with cutting-edge communication and data visualisation tools.
Sage's announcement of funding Sustainable Coastlines came amid growing suggestions the Government was on the verge of proposing a ban on single-use plastic bags.
She told the Herald this week that no decision had been made. Officials were working on options and a decision would be made after that information has been considered.
"My current preference is to phase out single-use plastic bags, rather than put a levy on them."
Greenpeace warned this week that a plastic bag ban alone will not solve the problem. It called on the Government to enact a plastic pollution strategy that starts with a comprehensive ban on plastic bags and moves into eliminating other avoidable single-use plastics, like straws, cutlery and stir sticks, and then set up nationwide container deposit scheme to ensure better collection with drink bottles.
To express interest in signing up as a Citizen Scientist, visit: www.sustainablecoastlines.org/litterproject/.