IEEE OES Plastics in the Ocean Initiative

3rd Workshop
Brest 2019
Oceans 2019
Brest 2018

This initiative contributes to the GEO Blue Planet Working Group on Marine Debris.


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 species extinction. The actual extent of this threat is not yet determined, and there is an urgent need to highlight how science and technology could quantify the pervasiveness of plastic pollution and understand the impacts on the Earth's life-support system. Conceiving feasible and effective efforts of reducing the flows of plastic into the ocean and reducing the stock of plastics in the ocean depned depends on a compehensive risk assessment of the plastic challenge. At the basis of tackling this challenge is the development of a strategy for monitoring the plastics in the ocean.


The IEEE OES Initiative aims to develop a metrix for assessing the different approaches to the observation and detection of plastics required to for a set of indicators. To achieve this, a working group led by OES in collaboration with the UN Environment and the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) initiative “Blue Planet“ will organize participatory workshops and utilize a collaborative platform for thematic deliberations.

The OES Technology Committees “Ocean Observation Systems and Environmental Sustainability&rdqo; and “Ocean Remote Sensing” are supporting this initiative:

  • The initiative has already proposed a topic for the OCEANS flagship conference;
  • Specific workshops will also enable us to reach across all the parties involved in the general research and development linked to the “plastic in the oceans” problem.

The initiative will directly link to governmental actions to address the challenge. At a political level there are some legislation available for instance the European Strategy for Plastics, or the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).

Key Parties Involved and Key Activities

The UNEP (UN Environment Program) is interested in finding support for their efforts to develop the methodology for monitoring marine debris along with producing some test cases (indicator 14.1.1 of SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) 14 - Index of coastal eutrophication and floating plastic debris density). Recognizing targets for ocean plastic and related indicators, is a first step before examining observation techniques and their potential for deployment.

At present there are many independent projects in the EU, USA, Japan for naming a few countries with working groups involved with the UN Environment. These projects are dealing with information and monitoring of marine litter and microplastics (UNEP), focusing on management, including risks, opportunities and synergies, and, as far as possible, relevant costs and benefits.

Europe is developing a marine strategy framework directive with emphasis on litter/microplastics on beaches, at sea and on the sea floor. Some groups (AIR Center, for instance) are concerns with the objective of producing a comprehensive mapping of the sources, distribution and fate of plastics to monitor circulation patterns and impacts of plastics in marine and coastal environments in the Atlantic Ocean.

All of the projects are proposing to use measurements: either from remote sensing facilities (satellite or airborne), surface and underwater in situ or participative observations, with of course a strong and massive use of data processing via deep learning techniques. Remote sensors possibly effective are ranging from multi- to hyperspectral optical sensing, radar sensing providing wide geo-spatial coverage. The techniques are available but, are they adapted to the problem at hand?

At the same time many data acquisitions from multi sources are needed for being able to have an approach on a larger scale, coupled with models of surface current circulation (with a 10m depth extent), and also with “indicators” linked to the plastic presence. Indeed, large scale remote sensing instruments are not able to directly access the plastic per se.

Inputs from other communities are necessary in order to understand the lifecycle of the plastic, as well as to know their effects and estimate the amount of plastics present. To do so an improvement of the methods and sampling systems is requested, with calibrated and inter-comparable data. A metadata description is also necessary.

In situ platforms of observations should be developed or adapted with an emphasis on having them on-board ships, with real-time monitoring of measurements with a global satellite system (Internet of Ships). Data must be acquired on the whole globe.

Anticipated Outcome

The major outcome of this initiative will consist of aggregating all the potential partners and stakeholders in order to propose projects at the international level. Considering the amount of plastic already present, the immediate need is to explore downstream solutions for assessing the sources and presence of plastics, as well as to detect plastics in the ocean through a range of observation means (underwater, satellite-borne, in situ, ... sensors). Another objective is to perform quantitative as well as qualitative measurements, and to track the circulation of plastics in the ocean and at the coastal level. But for achieving these objectives, we need to understand how the decisions are taken that refer to scientific findings and take on the concerns of civil society. In order to achieve these objectives, the initiative has started to develop, as a preliminary step, a roadmap with milestones at 6 months and 2 years for a set of goals after 5 years.


This Initiative is sponsored by: