Technologies for Observing and Monitoring Plastics in the Oceans

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Background Material
Workshop Flyer
IEEE OES Initiative
2020 Cascais Workshop
2019 Brest Workshop
Oceans 2019 Town Hall

Plastics in the oceans pose a mounting existential threat to life in the oceans and on land, including human life, and technologies to observe, measure and monitor the flow of plastics into, and within, the oceans are urgently needed in support of mitigating the threat.

Information Relevant to the Workshop

Information relevant to the workshop will be made available here as it becomes available. Information that is not public can be accessed in the Workspace. To access the workspace, you have to register for the workshop here. You may have to send a request to Hans-Peter Plag before you can register.


The event is set in order to demonstrate the value of science and technology in addressing the mounting global plastic challenge. On the one hand, an increasing number of experts and leading societal thinkers see plastic pollution in the ocean and on land as a threat to our future comparable to climate change, land use changes, and extinction. The impact of microplastics and plastics on life in the oceans is increasingly document in the rapidly growing deaths of birds and marine animals caused by ingested plastics. On the other hand, a recent survey of more than 3,000 leaders in the developing world, who were asked to identify the six Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that have highest priority for them, revealed that SDG 14 “Life under Water” was the extreme outlier of not being within these six priorities for almost all leaders (McDonnell, 2018).

Thus, there is an enormous need to raise awareness of the importance of the ocean and its connections to life on land: the ocean cannot be the trashcan of human society. Science can show this and technology can help to find other ways to make use of the ocean. The ocean is strongly impacted by plastic pollution and any upstream solution will have to reduce the flows of plastics for reducing the stock of plastics in the ocean.

UN Environment is interested in having support for their efforts on developing the methodology for monitoring marine debris along with producing some test cases (indicator 14.1.1" “Index of coastal eutrophication and floating plastic debris density” of SDG 14). Considering the amount of plastic already present, the immediate need is to explore downstream solutions for not only assessing the presence of plastics, but really to detect plastics in the ocean through a range of observation means (underwater, satellite-borne, in situ, ... sensors), to perform quantitative as well as qualitative measurements, and to track the circulation of plastics in the ocean and at the coastal level.

Meetings, Meeting Reports, Assessments

Relevant Documents and Videos

Concerning plastic in the Great Lakes, Susan Cosier states that “What Gets Thrown in the Great Lakes, Stays in the Great Lakes” She sees a need to take control of the 10,000 tons of plastic entering the lakes each year, whether it is being recycled, reused, or just outright bane. Read the article published by NRDC on November 05, 2018.

The article “'Single-use' crowned Word of the Year” by M. Berger published on November 7, 2018 in treehugger emphasizes that a fantastic word describing a disastrous phenomenon gets accolades from the Collins dictionary.

Sami Grover informs that the shipping industry cracks down on plastic waste. Read the article published on November 2, 2018 in treehugger.

The Twitter Moment available here focuses on the “Waste eating shark” which is also discussed in this announcement published by V. Nene on November 2, 2018.

The world’s recycling system is in crisis. At the end of 2017, China abruptly shut its doors to imports of recycled material, citing environmental concerns. That, write Leslie Hook and John Reed in an article in the Financial Times (paywall), has led to unprecedented disruption in a global industry and thrown the very purpose of recycling into question.

Indicators and Indices


Earth observation: In the context of the white paper and workshop, Earth observation is understood in a comprehensive way and denotes all observations of the human and non-human environment independent of how an observation was made and collected. Thus, it includes, among others, observations made with satellite-based sessors, air or ship-borne sensors, and fixed or moving sensors on the Earth surface. These sensors can make measurements of ambient conditions or use remote sensing methods to measure characteristics of objects in a distance ranging from nearby to very far away. The sensors can be in the hands of human beings, or human beings can be the sensors themselves. In most cases, the sensors measure a variable characterizing the state of the human or non-human environment, or can be used to derive such variables.

Index: An index is normally the collection of a number of indicators, which are combined to provide a measure related to specific goals. For example, the “Ocean Health Index” “establishes reference points for achieving widely accepted socio-ecological goals and scores for 220 countries and territories, Antarctica and 15 High Seas regions on how successfully they are achieved.

Indicator: A quantity that indicates the state or trends in a system. In the context of the white paper, indicators are quantities that are indicative of system characteristics. Indicators can be based on single variables or they can result from weighted combinations of several variables. For example, a “air quality indicator” could be composed of a number of variables such as various partical matter, concentration of chemical and biological pollutants, etc.

Variable: In the context of the white paper and project, a variable is a system proberty that can change in space and time and that can be quantified based on a well-defined metrics.

Wicked Problem: A wicked problem is a (social or cultural) problem that is difficult or impossible to solve mainly for four reasons: (1) there is incomplete and often contradictory knowledge about the problem; (2) the number of people and opinions involved is very large, (3) the economic burden associated with the problem and possible solutions is big; (4) the problem is inherently interconnected with other problems. Super wicked problems are those that have four more characteristics: (i) the time to address the problem is running out; (ii) there is no central authority to address the problem; (iii) those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; (iv) policies addressing the problem discount the future irrationally.

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