IEEE OES Plastics in the Ocean Initiative

Brest 2022
2022 SeaTechWeek
Virtual Working Session 2021
Marine Litter Sessions at OBPS Workshop
Brest 2019
Oceans 2019
Brest 2018

Meeting the Information Needs on Sources, Amounts, Reduction, and Prevention of Marine Litter


The Initiative focuses on steps towards a comprehensive information and knowledge system for marine debris that can support decision and policy making. On the one hand, an increasing number of experts and leading societal thinkers see marine debris and in particular 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.

Indicators and Indices

Promising efforts are made to monitor and quantify the flows of plastics into the ocean and to detect and quantify plastics in the ocean (Davaasuren et al., 2018, Garaba and Dierssen, 2018). However, in order to fully explore the existing observation means for the detection, monitoring and quantifying of ocean plastics, a comprehensive strategy is need. The strategy for an Integrated Marine Debris Observing System (IMDOS) is discussed in Maximenko et al. (2019). It is important to note that this strategy should be aligned to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 “Life Below Water,” specifically the Target 14.1 “By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution” and the associated Indicator 14.1.1 “Index of coastal eutrophication (ICEP) and floating plastic debris density.” Work on developing this indicator has started (UNEP, 2018). The GEO Initiative “Oceans and Society: Blue Planet” is contributing to the development of this indicator. The current work plan for 14.1.1 [21] identifies four main indicators for plastics:

  • Plastic debris washed/deposited on beaches or shorelines (beach litter);
  • Plastics debris in the water column;
  • Plastic debris on the seafloor/seabed;
  • Plastic ingested by biota (e.g. sea bird).

Considering the flows of plastics into the ocean, there is also a need for indicators that characterize these flows. At a minimum, indicators are needed for:

  • Plastic debris in rivers, including the mouths of rivers and estuaries
  • Plastic debris from ocean activities (shipping, fishing, mining),
  • Plastic debris flowing into the ocean as a result of coastal disasters.

Ocean activities contribute significantly to the flow of plastics into the ocean. According to (Lebreton et al., 2018), derelict fishing gears account for 46% of the plastics currently in the ocean. Considering the amount of plastics used in the built environment, coastal disasters increasingly contribute large amounts to marine plastic debris (Murray et al., 2018).

Each of the above indicators requires different monitoring techniques operating at different spatial and temporal scales. In the following, we are focusing on macroplastics in the water column and on beaches and the flows of macroplastics into the ocean. There is an immediate need for assessments of the sources and presence of ocean plastics, as well as to detect plastics in the ocean through a range of observation means. Tracking the flows of plastics into the ocean and the circulation of plastics in the ocean provides a basis for quantitative assessments. Measurements of the type of plastics in the ocean are also needed for qualitative assessments and comprehensive risk analyses.

In order to overcome the many barriers for the use of scientific knowledge in the development of policies (Kirchhoff et al., 2013), it will be important to co-designing the research agenda with decision and policy makers and to co-create the knowledge. An important process to facilitate this is participatory modeling.


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 property 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.


Davaasuren, N., Marino, A., Boardman, C., Ackermann, N., Alparone, M., & Nunziata, F., 2018. Exploring The Use Of SAR Remote Sensing To Detect Microplastics Pollution In The Oceans. Paper presented at the 5th Advances in SAR Oceanography Workshop (SeaSAR 2018), Frascati, Italy.

Garaba, S. P., & Dierssen, H. M., 2018. An airborne remote sensing case study of synthetic hydrocarbon detection using short wave infrared absorption features identified from marine-harvested macro- and microplastics. Remote Sensing of Environment, 205, 224-235.

Kirchhoff, C.J., Lemos, M.C., Dessai, S., 2013. Actionable knowledge for environmental decision making: Broadening the usability of climate science, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 38, 393-414.

Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F., Sainte-Rose, B., Aitken, J., Marthouse, R., Hajbane, S., Cunsolo, S., Schwarz, A., Levivier, A., Noble, K., Debeljak, P., Maral, H., Schoeneich-Argent, R., Brambini, R., and Reisser, J. (2018). Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports. DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w.

Maximenko, N., Corradi, P., Law, K., Van Sebille, E., Garaba, S. P., Lampitt, R. S., Galgani, F., Martinez-Vincente, V. ... Wilcox, C., 2019. Towards an Integrated Marine Debris Observing Systems. Frontiers in Marine Sciences, in press.

Murray, C. C., Maximenko, N., & Lippiatt, S. (2018). The influx of marine debris from the Great Japan Tsunami of 2011 to North American shorelines. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 132, 26-32.

UNEP, 2018. Goal 14, Target number 14.1, Indicator Number and Name 14.1.1. Workplan for Indicator 14.1.1., available at

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