A cutting-edge, new tool developed by Minderoo Foundation has identified thousands of waste sites across 25 countries for the first time using advanced satellite data technology and machine learning (ML) to measure piles of plastic waste from space.
Global Plastic Watch is a tool which combines Earth Observation (EO) with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create the first-ever, near-real-time, high-resolution map of plastic pollution. This is the largest open-source dataset of plastic waste across dozens of countries. The aim of the tool is to help authorities to better manage plastic leakage into the marine environment.
Global Plastic Watch uses remote sensing satellite imagery from the European Space Agency (ESA) and a first-of-its-kind, machine learned model created in collaboration with award winning Digital Product Agency for the Environment, Earthrise Media. The tool is able to determine the size and scale of land-based plastic waste sites, a major factor in fueling the growing problem of plastic pollution of the world’s rivers and oceans.
The data gathered provides a historical first and authoritative insight into one of the world’s most intractable environmental challenges – a deluge of plastic pollution that is threatening the oceans, harming communities, marine life, animal and human health. By using it, governments, industry and communities can evaluate and monitor the risk of land-based plastic waste sites, as well as prioritise investments in solutions.
The countries mapped so far include all of 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 the Minderoo Foundation, described data and transparency as important tools to fight plastic waste, and until now, it has been difficult to effectively identify and measure plastic waste build-up in a systematic, standardized way . “Generally, the world has no idea how dangerous plastic waste is to the organic environment, particularly humans. The destination for every piece of plastic is nano-plastic, which has both poisonous and cutting attributes able to mutilate cells and even penetrate the human blood brain barrier,” he said. “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.”
Using AI and satellite data, Minderoo Foundation has produced the first-ever map of plastic waste build up. Most of the data about plastic waste comes from models and estimates. Now this understanding is informed by real data that can be used to guide solutions.
“Global Plastic Watch arms governments and researchers around the world with data that can better guide effective waste management interventions, ensuring land-based waste doesn’t end up in our oceans,” Dr. Forrest said. “We want to work with governments to ensure this tool can also help to support policy change where needed.”
Dr. Fabien Laurier, Lead for Technology and Innovation, and Ocean Conservation at Minderoo Foundation said some of the Global Plastic Watch findings were surprising. “We know that land-based leakage contributes up to 91 per cent of the plastic waste that enters the ocean,” Dr Laurier said. “Global Plastic Watch has revealed that many large-scale waste sites across the first 25 countries we have mapped were previously undocumented and the number of sites is much higher than expected.”