Estimates of marine debris are often based on beach surveys. Few studies have documented the veracity of these observations and the factors that may affect accuracy. Our laboratory-scale experiment identified potential sources of error associated with visual identification of marine debris (1-2 cm long) during shoreline surveys of sand beaches. Characteristics of the survey site (beach characteristics), observer (personal characteristics), and debris (color and size) may be important factors to consider when analyzing data from shoreline surveys. The results of this study show that the ability of individuals to accurately identify plastic fragments depends on the plastic and sand color, and density of shell fragments. Most suggestively, the high accuracy of blue plastic counts (95%) and the under-counting of white (50%) and clear plastic counts (55%) confirmed the hypothesis that a significant amount of clear and white plastic fragments may be missed during shoreline surveys. These results highlight the need for further research and possible modifications of visual shoreline survey methodologies in order to optimize this cost-effective method of marine debris monitoring.