Measurement of riverine plastic pollution: the current state of affairs

To measure is to know. In the case of plastic pollution, this is easier said than done. To date, a number of studies have been done to measure and quantify the plastic pollution of rivers, seas and oceans. However, the best results until now are estimates and approximate numbers based on incomplete and/or inconsistent datasets and with and unknown measurement error.

And this is the case for both marine and riverine plastic pollution.

To measure is to know, but for that purpose measurements need to be accurate.

Nonetheless, accurate measurements are an essential aspect of any action plan to combat marine plastic pollution. And this is even more the case for riverine plastic pollution: since this phenomenon is less known, reliable measurements are absolutely necessary to design and drive the management of rivers and waterways with regard to plastic pollution.

Our first goal: reliable measurements

To generate accurate and reliable measurements related to riverine plastic pollution, Zero Plastic Rivers cooperates in the definition and elaboration of a validated measurement method based on sampling and statistical extrapolation. Although this traditional and proven measurement method is labor intensive and requires a long measurement cycle, it does provide measurement results which are as reliable as possible.

For this purpose, it is necessary to define specific measurement protocols, to identify appropriate sampling points, to get a representative sample size and to process the resulting samples in such way (cleaning, sorting, categorizing, weighing, …) that they can be used to build statistical models that are as accurate as possible.

This method is ideal to assess the plastic pollution of a pilot river. In this context, the river Scheldt is the ideal candidate.

Our second goal: automated measurement systems

Although measurements based on samples and statistical methods can provide reliable results, they require a lot of work and time. To make the measurement  of riverine plastic pollution as efficient as possible,  Zero Plastic Rivers aims to use automated measurement systems based on sensor- and information technology. Such systems must be both effective and efficient, providing accurate and reliable measurements within a short timeframe and requiring a less labor as possible. Additionally, such systems need to be usable in any imaginable river or waterway. To design, create and build such systems, cooperation between research institutions and companies specialized in technology and marine engineering will be required.