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Innovation: an application to mobilise the largest number of people in the combat against plastic in rivers

Global and diffuse, plastic pollution has become a global scourge involving decomposition mechanisms and flows from the land to the sea, whose magnitude we are only just beginning to assess and understood. Rivers are at the centre of these interactions and thy must be protected from plastic pollution to prevent it from reaching the oceans. The number of initiatives is increasing. Here we focus on that of the Surfrider Foundation which has taken up the wager of combining community mobilisation with technology to make people aware and act.

Between land and sea are rivers

 

Valued by industry and consumers, plastics have undergone a boom over the past decades to become one of the world’s most commonly produced materials, after cement and steel. Its production, currently 360 million tonnes a year, should continue to rise to reach twice that amount by 2050. However, according to a report on plastic pollution published in 2019 by WWF, a third of annual world production is discarded in the form of macro-plastics sent to dumps or thrown directly into the environment.

This pollution raises numerous problems. From the degradation of natural landscapes, to the dangers of microplastics (smaller than 5 mm, such as industrial granules and synthetic fibres) for human health and that of ecosystems, diffuse and invisible plastic pollution represents a real threat. The issue of the oceans has stirred public opinion and the scientific world. The idea of a 7th continent made of plastic highlights the problem whose magnitude has been confirmed by an array of studies (Breaking the Waves). Other initiatives focus on the specific role of rivers in this pollution, such as the charter “My territory takes a stand: rivers without plastic, the oceans protected” launched by IFGR with the Fondation Tara Océan and CNR. Surfrider Foundation Europe, which shares the same conclusion that 80% of the pollution found in the oceans comes from rivers, has launched its own project: Plastic Origins.

A novel approach

The concept: mapping plastic waste on river banks. Identifying polluted areas has several advantages:

  • Recovering waste before it decomposes completely;
  • Targeting the most affected territories to carry out cleaning operations and propose solutions to local actors;
  • Monitoring the evolution of pollution through time.

The project is based on an artificial intelligence algorithm capable of detecting, counting and geolocalising waste using a simple video. The application will allow anyone to signal a polluted area, either by film or by entering the information manually, according to the principle of participatory sciences.

Actors-consumers

The success of this experiment demands the involvement of everyone, both French and European citizens, for the mapping and data collection phases. The more data there are, the more efficient the scientific utilisation and orientation of public policies will be. Although the purpose of the project is above all to eliminate already existing macro-plastics from our river banks, another objective is to understand this pollution so it can be avoided. This will require improving sorting and processing wastes, as well as introducing new plastic production processes. Indeed, this production continues to increase exponentially year after year. Only 9% of waste plastics were recycled between 1950 and 2015.

To learn more about the Plastic Origins project presented in our Solutions Platform

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