Understanding
the problem

We believe that in order to develop optimal cleanup technologies, we must truly understand the problem. Very little is known about the properties and dynamics of plastic pollution in aquatic ecosystems – this is why we invest in scientific research and produce open-access science. By understanding the sources, transport, and fate of plastic in and flowing into the ocean, we can create the foundation onto which we develop our cleanup solutions.

Research areas

Oceans: Field sampling is essential to monitor the impact of our cleanup, and it helps shape our strategy. Observational and applied studies are at the heart of our research on plastic pollution. Systematic and accurate field data enable us to better comprehend the nature and evolution of ocean plastics.

The Research Team has conducted several offshore expeditions in the subtropical gyres of the North Atlantic and the North Pacific Oceans. Data collected during these missions revealed new insights on the accumulation of floating plastic debris – both on the ocean surface, as well as within the water column. In 2018, we published a comprehensive quantification and characterization of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the first location for our cleanup operations.

Rivers: To better understand the dynamics and quantities of plastic that flow into our oceans from rivers, we conduct extensive observational field sampling research on land, in river networks, and near coastlines.

River plastic research in Guatemala
River plastic research in Guatemala
Mega Expedition research vessel deploying manta trawl.
Trawling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Density) profiler during deep sea research 2018. The aim of the mission was to see if the plastic afloat in ocean garbage patches can pollute the deep sea below.
CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Density) profiler during deep sea research, 2018. The aim of the mission was to see if plastic floating in ocean garbage patches can pollute the deep sea below
River plastic research in Malaysia, conducted by The Ocean Cleanup crew and local research partners
River plastic research in Malaysia, conducted by The Ocean Cleanup crew and local research partners

Become a citizen scientist

Join the largest cleanup in history by becoming a Citizen Scientist. You can help The Ocean Cleanup gather data on plastic in waterways around the world using our Ocean Cleanup Survey App. Data gathered are used to optimize our global cleanup strategy. All you need is a smartphone and a passion to work on this important environmental issue. Every data point counts!

Featured research

Mapping the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Between 2015 and 2018, we mapped the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). We estimated that nearly 80,000 metric tons of buoyant plastics waste, spread over an area of 1.6m square kilometers, has accumulated in this region. Our ongoing cleanup operations provide a fantastic opportunity to further our understanding of the GPGP and its formation.

In recent years, we have been thoroughly documenting our ocean plastic catch: we sampled the deep sea to monitor microplastics fallout; we reported variations in size distribution of floating plastics across the North Pacific; and we initiated research on ecosystems living at the surface of the ocean to better understand how they are impacted by plastic – and potentially by our cleanup.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Explained Illustration by: in60seconds

Advanced technology for detection of ocean plastic

We are pioneering research for the detection of ocean plastics. In recent years, the team has installed monitoring cameras on ocean vessels, bridges over rivers, and in trees bordering remote beaches. These cameras take thousands of images of plastic debris around the world. This collection of imagery supports the training of artificial intelligence that automatically quantifies and characterizes plastic pollution. This technology has the potential to greatly increase our global monitoring capacity and help guide our cleanup. We have demonstrated the proof of concept in several open-access publications. Efforts are now being scaled to increase our monitoring capacity with the help of partners.

Typical detections by the algorithm. Several verified objects after manual sorting and elimination of duplicates

Global riverine emissions of plastic

Quantifying plastic pollution in the world’s oceans requires a deep understanding of how it got there. Rivers play an important role in transporting mismanaged plastic waste from land into the ocean.

To accurately predict plastic emissions from rivers, we have started several multi-year monitoring campaigns on different continents. Working through partnerships with local researchers and universities, we are developing a comprehensive picture of how plastic moves through river networks toward the ocean.

Our latest scientific publications

  • Pelagic distribution of plastic debris (> 500 µm) and marine organisms in the upper layer of the North Atlantic Ocean

    August 2022, article in peer-reviewed article
    Scientific Reports

    Matthias Egger, Britte Schilt, Helen Wolter, Thomas Mani, Robin de Vries, Erik Zettler and Helge Niemann

  • Microbial communities on plastic particles in surface waters differ from subsurface waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre

    August 2022, Article in peer-reviewed journal
    Science Direct

    Annika Vaksmaa, Matthias Egger, Claudia Lüke, Paula Dalcin Martins, RiccardoRosselli , Alejandro Abdala Asbuna and Helge Niemann

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our team

Contribute your skills, and build a clean future with us

Support the project

Help us continue advancing the scientific knowledge of the plastic pollution problem