AI tool tracks plastic waste from space

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A new tool combining artificial intelligence and earth observation can measure plastic waste from space, identifying thousands of waste sites across 25 countries.

Dr Fabien Laurier using the new global waste finding tool
Dr Fabien Laurier using the new global waste finding tool - Image credit: Minderoo Foundation

Developed by Minderoo Foundation, the ‘Global Plastic Watch’ tool uses advanced satellite data technology and machine learning to create a near-real-time, high resolution map of plastic pollution.

The tool aims to help authorities better manage plastic leakage into the marine environment, and is said to provide the largest ever open source dataset of plastic waste across dozens of countries.

Global Plastic Watch uses remote sensing satellite imagery from the European Space Agency and a novel machine learning model created in collaboration with digital product agency Earthrise Media. The tool can determine the size and scale of land-based plastic waste sites, which fuel the growing issue of plastic pollution in the world’s rivers and oceans.

By using the data, governments, industry and communities can evaluate and monitor the risk of land-based plastic waste sites as well as prioritise investment in solutions, Minderoo Foundation said.

Regions mapped so far include South-East Asia, Australia, and the countries identified by research published in Science Advances as accounting for high rates of plastic emissions into the ocean.

Dr Andrew Forrest AO, chairman and co-founder of Minderoo Foundation described data and transparency as important tools to fight plastic waste. 

Until now, it has been difficult to effectively identify and measure plastic waste build-up in a systematic, standardised way, the company said in a statement.

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“Generally, the world has no idea how dangerous plastic waste is to the organic environment, particularly humans,” Forrest said. “The destination for every piece of environmental plastic is nano-plastic, which has both poisonous and cutting attributes able to mutilate cells and possibly even penetrate the human blood-brain barrier.

“Preventing illegal and legal plastic waste stockpiles entering the oceanic environment is critical to limit this harm. Once in the ocean, through both mixing, absorption and ingestion by animals, this plastic will officially enter the human environment.”

According to Dr Fabien Laurier, lead for technology and innovation and ocean conservation at Minderoo Foundation said some of the Global Plastic Watch findings were surprising, explaining that land-based leakage contributes up to 91 per cent of the plastic waste that enters the ocean.

Many large-scale waste sites across the first 25 countries were previously undocumented and the number of sites is ‘much higher than expected’, he added.

The government of Indonesia is working with Minderoo Foundation to increase its recycling capacity to double recycling rates by developing capacity for an additional one million tonnes per year by 2025.

Indonesian National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP) chair, Sri Indrastuti Hadiputranto, said that Global Plastic Watch will lead to more sustainable policy outcomes and improved collaboration in data collection in Indonesia.

“It’s a timely innovation for policymakers, practitioners and advocates that believe in the importance of evidence-based policy making to advance our goal in reducing 70 per cent of ocean leakage by 2025,” Hadiputranto commented.

Global Plastic Watch will continue to work with partners to refine the artificial intelligence model and technology to further increase its accuracy as it expands its coverage to new sites and countries throughout 2022.