A Community Approach to Reducing Single-Use Plastic Bottles

The long term, sustainable goal of this 2-year project was to change (reduce) single-use plastic water bottle use behavior of students at two high schools in Prince William County, VA through increased awareness of and connectivity between bottle usage and inland and marine debris problems in the tidal freshwater Potomac River.




This pilot project was a collaborative effort with George Mason University (Mason), Keep Prince William Beautiful (KPWB), Prince William County Public Works Watershed Division (PWC)Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District (PWSWCD)Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), and Freedom and Patriot High Schools within Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS). Learn more about our team contributions HERE

Funding for the Prince William County Community Marine Debris Project was provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program.


For educators looking to establish a similar program, this website toolkit details the process for teacher and student delegate selection and training, educational, field and data collection activities related to marine debris reduction efforts, grass-roots marketing initiatives and the impacts of our program.

Project Impacts

To achieve sustainable behavior change at the pilot high schools, our project team focused on three broad areas: Training high school teachers and student delegates, supporting students in development and implementation of their Community-Based Social Marketing campaign, including a targeted social media plan, and greatly expanding participation in community cleanups located throughout Prince William County, Virginia. For their efforts, students in the project were awarded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 3 President’s Environmental youth Award (PEYA).

Research shows that authentic experiences enhance marine debris connections, helping to bridge the gap in understanding how litter effects our environment. Students from Patriot and Freedom high schools were invited by science teachers, teacher participants,  and through the school’s environmental clubs to participate in the Marine Debris grant program. Teachers and student delegates were invited to join a canvas course which hosted the training and discussion boards to learn more about the issue and share ideas.
After learning about the issues, students participated in field experiences and/or led various action projects, including:
  • Joining litter studies at the watershed storm water retention basins at the schools, participating in Adopt-A-Spot clean ups, water quality testing, site surveys, and litter characterization
  • Joining GMU grad students at a local stream for anadromous fish sampling where they learned how to characterize stream flow, topography, chemical measures, and take samples
  • Learning how to survey water samples taken from streams that were historic hosts for various anadromous fish to identify eggs and larvae
  • Creating social media posts to encourage peers to reduce their use of single use plastics
  • Hosting a booth at a large community outreach event where they shared single use plastic data and provided metal water bottles to those who signed a pledge, and
  • Holding water bottle giveaway and pledge events at lunches, at sports team practices, and a local community parade.

Surveys, Bottle Giveaways, & Pledges

Our Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM)(Mackenzie-Mohr, 2011) pilot project aimed to raise awareness of and connect participants to marine debris ecological impacts, expand participation in cleanup efforts, and change disposable water bottle use behavior at two schools.

Our baseline survey was completed by students in science classes and lunchrooms at Patriot & Freedom High Schools. Results of the survey were presented at conferences and meetings to a variety of of audiences, including:

  • The 2021 Mid-Atlantic Marine Debris Summit
  • The 2021 Virginia Association of Environmental Educators summer conference to Leadership Prince William, and
  • A Prince William County School Board meeting, where students also handed out reusable bottles to the school board members.

We assessed single-use beverage bottle usage at two high schools and barriers to using reusable bottles through a baseline plastic bottle usage survey. Results indicated that students used over 2000 single use bottles daily per school or the equivalent of 20,000 per week. Our goal was to enhance motivation and invite high schoolers to use refillable bottles through education and pledges.

Student response to the campaign was overwhelming prompting 800 reusable water bottles to be distributed at program launch and a subsequent 800 bottles distributed later. Reusable water bottles were given out to students at lunches, sports team practices, a local community parade and via a booth at a large community outreach event. NOAA and Prince William County Schools Sustainability Office also provided funds for the installation of bottle filling stations at the schools.

Field Experiences

Schoolyard Mapping

To learn first hand about how trash and litter impacts local communities, waterways, and wildlife, students explored the school grounds identifying storm water ponds and drains. Tim Hughes, Environmental Specialist, Prince William County, engaged students in tracking path of storm water on school grounds. The students located all of the storm drains and examined maps showing where rain water carrying litter and trash runs off school grounds and empties into local streams and rivers.

Students used the storm water pond and clean up activity form to locate designated areas and record findings.  See the Storm Water Pond & Clean up Activity form.

Stream Sampling

After tracking the path of storm water from their school to locals stream, students visited either the Neabsco or Marumsco Creek to observe litter and aquatic organisms living downstream from their school. Authentic field experiences, such as collecting organisms in streams, helps enhance marine debris connections.

To find out if anadromous fish like river herring were returning to streams to breed, students and teachers, led by GMU grad students helped collect ichthyoplankton (fish eggs and fish larvae) samples downstream from high schools. Students examined those samples back in their classrooms.

Classroom Activities- Lab Investigation

After GMU student Rachel Kilmartin modeled the technique, students analyzed samples collected downstream from their high school. They were looking for fish larvae and fish eggs. And they found them! Teachers and students then discussed how plastic debris from their school could blow or wash into storm drain and travel to the streams. Using refillable water bottles, rather than disposaable ones, will cut down on debris moving from our schools into our streams.

Adopt-A-Spot & Clean- Ups

Students adopted spots around the high schools and participated in multiple cleanups. They also attended local stream clean-ups on several weekends. Participants reported that actually seeing and touching the floating bottles and other debris was impactful. They had no idea just how much trash flowed through local waterways.

The Adopt-A-Spot program is administered by Keep Prince William Beautiful. Teachers and students in this marine debris program signed up to adopt the areas surrounding their high school by agreeing to provide a minimum of two litter clean-ups per year to receive a sign designating it as a spot adopted by the high school.

A community environmental calendar of events was also developed for the KPWB website to more widely advertise stream clean-ups and sustainability projects for our communities at large.

Social Sharing

To engage more students, student delegates created targeted messages on Tik Tok, Instagram, and SnapChat. They created a segment for the morning minute announcements. Community partners shared related videos and content over their social media. Prince William County Schools shared program videos on Twitter, YouTube,  and PEREC-GMU shared the informational and instruction modules on YouTube and Facebook.

Watch the video we created for educators on how to Develop a Community -Based Social Marketing Campaign


In November 2021, Prince William County installed a bandalong- the Neabsco Creek in-stream trash collector. Data on in-stream litter collection was provided by PWC Environmental Management Division to demonstrate the quantity and types of litter it collected. Students and teachers joined Tim Hughes, Environmental Specialist, Prince William County, in monthly debris removal and tallying. This chart shows the quantity of debris removed on 12 different dates.

Students at both Freedom and Patriot high schools reported data from their bi-annual Adopt-A-Spot cleanups. The 86 volunteers collected 37 bags of trash and plastic bottles for a combined total of nearly 800lbs of litter collected from the streams.

1600 reusable water bottles were distributed to student at both high schools and water refill stations installed. While the totals for single-use plastic water bottles were impacted due to COVID-19 related school closures during the initial period following installation, the current school year with in-person learning reports a total of over 170K single use plastic bottles saved.



Teacher & Student Training

Teacher and student professional development consisted of workshops through GMU’s Potomac Science Center, schoolyard stormwater training and ichthyoplankton field training. We planned to host 10 teacher delegates and 20 student delegates at the Potomac Science Center for training, but due to COVID restrictions we created online training modules which can be viewed HERE

Video Gallery

See the full list of GMU and Community Partner’s VIDEOS

School Resources and Geographical Impact Area

Our project enlisted the support of 20 teachers and 35 PWCS high school student delegates whose efforts impacted the behavior of students at Freedom High School (Title I, 2159 students) located near Neabsco Creek- one of the County’s most trash-laden waterbodies, and Patriot High School (2678 students) in the Broad Run watershed.


For more information on NOAA Marine Debris Program Prevention grant projects, visit their website
For more information on NOAA Marine Debris Program Education resources and activities, visit their website