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New tool highlights the world's ocean pollution problem

United Nations Threatened Oceans
Posted at 2:28 PM, Jun 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-09 16:32:48-04

We know pollution is a problem, and we know waste ends up in our waterways. But it's hard to quantify exactly how much waste and where it's coming from. A new, first-of-its-kind data tool aims to change that by letting us see how much plastic is being dumped, and what's being done about it.

“A lot of the waste is generated on land and ultimately can end up in the oceans being brought through rain and wind and rivers and other forms of direct dumping that produces between 19 and 23 million metric tons of plastic waste entering our oceans and lakes and rivers every single year,” said Molly Morse, project scientist at UC Santa Barabara's Benioff Ocean Initiative.

She says, “that’s the equivalent of dumping the water in 23 Olympic-sized swimming pools in plastic waste into the ocean every single day.”

The research group leverages marine science and technology to solve challenges facing oceans and waterways.

Plastic is one of those challenges. So much plastic.

They're working with partners around the world to figure out how much is out there and where it's coming from.

“For example, how much plastic pollution is collected in each of these rivers? What type of plastic is it? What’s being done with that plastic after we pull it out of the river? Is it recycled or put in a sanitary landfill.”

They have quite a system for tracking that.

They're working with nine different river systems around the world, across four continents in nine countries, using things like floating fences and conveyor belts and traps.

“The data are coming from how much plastic waste is being captured by the plastic capture systems,” said Morse.

Benioff's data is presented by Tableau.

“We help people see and understand data,” said Steve Schwartz. He's in public affairs for the software company, which takes information and helps everyone see it and understand it quickly.

“What we can do with data is see what’s otherwise not seen in the case of the plastic collection, what we’re able to see is the negative impact that not taking action is having on these communities and we’re also able to see the positive impact that cleanup is having.”

“Inevitably a lot of this trash ends up in the environment and it needs to be cleaned up and somebody has to do that and so that’s really where we feel our niche is being called,” said Morse.

It's a complicated problem and we've got a long way to go, but Molly says it's already working and already making a difference.