EMLM - Environmental Marine Litter Monitoring

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Objectives of the service

In recent years marine plastic pollution has increased in global profile.  It has been widely reported that plastic pollution is one of the largest anthropogenic threats to our marine environment of this century .  Policies relating to the management of plastic waste are an increasingly high priority within environmental sustainability agendas. 

The study investigates the feasibility of an innovative Environmental Marine Litter Monitoring (EMLM) Earth Observation (EO) data-driven mapping and monitoring solution for detecting mega and macro floating marine plastic litter.  Improving knowledge of the sources, pathways, and trends of plastic pollution in rivers estuaries and coastal environments is key to the successful implementation of regional and local waste management systems.  

The initial focus of EMLM is to determine the feasibility of Earth observation satellite, HAPS and drone data to detect and monitor large accumulations of floating plastic litter and to model the predicted movement of the identified debris as it travels from the source, along rivers and estuaries, and into the Oceans.  This is supported with in-situ detection and quantification of microplastics using portable systems and laboratory analysis.  

The aim of EMLM is to implement a monitoring service that can examine environmental changes due to excess plastic litter within river, estuary, and coastal marine environments. 

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Users and their needs

Globally there are many important user groups that would benefit from the identification and tracking of large accumulations of marine plastic litter.  For this study we have focussed on two communities: International conservation organisations and marine waste collection companies and have had discussions with organisations including:  WWF, The Ocean Cleanup, The SeaCleaners, Plastic Europe, Plastic Odyssey and others involved in plastic clean up and collection

International conservation organisations, such as WWF, support the establishment of an international legally binding agreement to reduce the input of plastic into the oceans.  For them, it is important to develop a scientifically robust system that can be reliably used to establish a global marine plastic monitoring system to understand the input of marine litter into the sea at an international level.  In addition, clear visuals and success stories can provide vital educational tools for communities and support the uptake of local clean-up programmes.

Marine plastic waste collection companies are often technology focussed and are interested in accurately identifying locations where plastic has accumulated within river and coastal environments.   With this knowledge they can quickly mobilise their highly advanced collection systems/boats, gather the floating plastic debris and deliver it to local plastic recycling businesses for reintroduction into the plastic circular economy.

The users involved in the activity have selected several target locations across Europe and South East Asia within river and coastal environments that have significant environmental challenges due to excess marine plastic waste.  Four locations, identified by end users and located in Eastern Europe, SE Asia and the Caribbean, will be examined as pilot study sites.

Service/ system concept

The EMLM service aims to provide regular monitoring for end users at sites of known waste accumulation (e.g. landfill sites, illegal dumps or river obstruction, dam, beach) or monitoring of a given area of interest (AOI) within a river, estuary or coastal environment for floating debris which may contain plastic. The service will monitor these hotspot locations on a weekly/monthly basis and provide input into a Global Plastic Debris Monitoring database. 

Following initial identification of end user area of interest, the collection of daily, weekly, or monthly data from satellite systems and the processing of acquired data will identify key hotspots of plastic debris accumulation. This satellite derived data, combined with met-ocean and any in-situ information, will input into state-of-the-art modelling technologies to identify plastic drift direction. As required by end users, the surveying of floating marine debris from very high resolution (VHR) earth observation sensors, HAPS or drone data can be integrated and on/off site indexing of the microplastic contamination and typology on the coastal sediments can be provided. The outputs of the modelling will integrate with any in-situ plastic debris collection and spectral analysis of these samples

The standard deliverables will include regular detection reports of observed material and GIS files (geotiff/shp), digital maps showing predicted drift of marine litter, a summary pdf file with spatial extent and time of observation, and client supplied data.

Space Added Value

EMLM will use a combined approach to satellite imagery investigation, using low to high resolution radar and optical, future high temporal and hyperspectral systems, and metocean satellites. EMLM aims to quantify the limitations of the spectral and spatial resolutions of each of these systems for plastic detection.

EMLM combines EO data with state-of-the-art modelling to track the drift of plastic debris along rivers, estuaries, and coastlines, based on predictive modelling of floating debris and metocean data.  

Moreover, in-situ HAPS/drone/moored balloon systems help obtain quantitative data on the type, volume, and density of plastic litter within marine environments at a regional/local scale.  Additionally, contamination index in the marine sediment can be calculated and contextualised with the concentration of macro-plastics in the water system by in-situ sample collection and lab analysis as required for each area of interest.

Current Status

The EMLM feasibility study commenced in March 2021.

In the first 3 months of the project, ten meetings were held with participating end users.  Information on their individual needs were collated and provide crucial input to the design of the EMLM system.  Key considerations include the following:  requirement for calibration of EO data to drone or in-situ data, regularity of monitoring, the minimum size of plastic litter accumulations that can be identified using open access and commercial EO data, suitable visualisation and communication of results to technical and non-technical users.

The next phase of work focusses on designing a scientifically reliable and economically viable system, based on EO data and supported with in-situ measurements, to detect and monitor large accumulations of marine plastic litter in river or coastal environments.  

The First Progress Meeting took place in June 2021 and the second one in September 2021.

Status Date

Updated: 13 October 2021 - Created: 28 July 2021