MEASURING THE FLOATING RIVER WASTE
The aforementioned bridge-mounted cameras are also used to discover more about the precise nature of the plastic pollution in these rivers. Using AI, the images recorded by the cameras are analyzed to quantify the amount of plastic. This data greatly aids the scientific community to understand better the seasonality of plastic waste being emitted into the oceans from rivers, and share this information in the hope that policymakers upstream can factor this into their mitigation strategies.
AI analysis of plastic pollution in river
Each set of bridge-mounted cameras – know as the River Monitoring Systems, or RMS – allows us to learn more about the flux of debris in the river, as well as giving us more information about how much waste is organic (i.e water hyacinths) and how much is non-organic (such as plastic, glass and metal). The RMS systems we have deployed in these rivers are large in scale; one of the three deployments on bridges in Thailand features 13 cameras (out of a total of 23 cameras deployed in Thailand) which together can ‘see’ 50% of the cross-section of the river – which is over 260m wide. These cameras take pictures every 15 minutes with each picture 0.25 seconds apart to allow us to measure the speed of the moving debris. AI modeling is then used to identify the debris, give a measurement of the size of individual pieces, and differentiate the various types of waste (i.e. organic and non-organic).
These large operations covering multiple bridges in a single city give us a much more complete picture of where plastic is entering these rivers and how it can be tackled with most impact. More data means our result and findings become increasingly accurate and reliable. Additionally, comparing levels of waste in tributaries with levels found in main rivers, and comparing the levels upstream and downstream within the main river itself, can tell us exactly where plastic is entering the river (i.e. if we see a big increase in plastic between two measuring locations, this likely tells us there is an entry point between the two measuring points). All this data is combined and used to help us formulate the most effective strategy to intercept plastic before it can reach the main river.
This program is in the first year of a three-year data collection plan. We are also intending to explore new options for addressing plastic pollution in these rivers alongside our research – such as Interceptor 004, The Ocean Cleanup’s first river deployment in the Caribbean which has been removing plastic and gathering data in the Rio Ozama in Santo Domingo since 2021. In Durban, the local Litterbooms project can serve the same function. Meanwhile, additional in-situ sampling using nets and dredging will help us understand the role of surface, water column and riverbed sediments as bearers of plastic waste. We’ll also be surveying waste that washes onto beaches close to the mouths of these rivers to learn more about the impact on the local coastal environment.
Plastic pollution is a human-made problem, and cleanup is only one part of the solution. Better understanding the socio-economic factors which lead to plastic pollution is key to stopping plastic pollution upstream, ideally before cleanup becomes necessary. Therefore, our research extends beyond the environmental scientific realm and into the social scientific domain. In Bangkok for example, described above, our expert colleagues from the Social Research Institute at Chulalongkorn University have already begun. We aim to deepen our fundamental understanding of river plastic pollution processes, and identify relevant socio-economic factors to refine our local and global models and improve the impact of our plastic interception program worldwide. The data generated from our observational network can support the development and implementation of national and international schemes and policies to tackle plastic pollution at source, with the hope that one day soon these rivers will be free of plastic, and our Interceptors will no longer be required.
This research project is supported by our partner Tito’s Handmade Vodka
Header image: Focus for research and cleanup: the busy waterways of the Chao Phraya River meandering through the metropolis of Bangkok before at sunset (iStock / Getty)
Support Lumiserver & Cynesys on Tipeee
Visit our sponsors
Wise (formerly TransferWise) is the cheaper, easier way to send money abroad. It helps people move money quickly and easily between bank accounts in different countries. Convert 60+ currencies with ridiculously low fees - on average 7x cheaper than a bank. No hidden fees, no markup on the exchange rate, ever.
Now you can get a free first transfer up to 500£ with your ESNcard. You can access this offer here.