Remote Sensing of Plastic Pollution

Tracking plastic litter leaking from economic systems to seas

Source: Maximenko et al. 2019
Millions of tonnes of discarded plastic waste are finding their way to the world’s seas and oceans – plastic is the dominant and most problematic component of marine litter today. Knowledge of plastic litter hotspots shows that plastic litter is abundant not only at sea but in coastal zones, rivers and on land. Plastic pollution created by humans has attained a planet-wide distribution, and even extends into space with the phenomenon of space debris.

Remote sensing of marine litter was identified as a novel, automated sensing methodologies for floating marine litter in the MSFD Technical Subgroup on Marine Litter guidance report (see below), which also identified data gaps. The white paper entitled, Remote sensing of marine debris to study dynamics, balances and trends (see below) concluded that remote sensing remote sensing  “… is the only technology capable of providing uniform observation coverage of large areas of the ocean and shorelines (as well as freshwater systems such as lakes and rivers).” Methodologies for tracking and monitoring plastic litter at the sea surface are in in a pioneering phase, but show promise for large area coverage as well as locally.

On this topic, E&H has contributed to two sentinel peer reviewed papers, a white paper and the MSFD Technical Subgroup Marine litter guidance document which identifyed remote sensing as an option for plastic macrolitter observations. These can all be downloaded via the links below:

Toward the Integrated Marine Debris Observing System. Front. Mar. Sci. 2019, 6:447.


Measuring Marine Plastic Debris from Space: Initial Assessment of Observation Requirements. Remote Sens. 2019, 11, 2443; doi:10.3390/rs11202443

Remote sensing of marine debris to study dynamics, balances and trends. Maximenko et al. 2016.White paper.

MSFD Technical Subgroup on Marine Litter. Guidance on Monitoring of Marine Litter in European Seas. Reference Report by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. 2013. 128 pp. doi:10.2788/99475 Date: 2013 Title: Guidance on Monitoring of Marine Litter in European Seas. Authors: HANKE Georg; GALGANI Francois; WERNER Stefanie; OOSTERBAAN Lex; NILSSON Per; FLEET David; KINSEY Sue; THOMPSON Richard; PALATINUS Andreja; VAN FRANEKER Jan Andries; VLACHOGIANNI Thomais; SCOULLOS Michael; VEIGA Joana Mira; MATIDDI Marco; ALCARO Luigi; MAES Thomas; KORPINEN Samuli; BUDZIAK Ania; LESLIE Heather; GAGO Jesus; LIEBEZEIT Gerd.

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