Understanding
the problem

We believe that, to develop the most optimal cleanup technologies, it is essential that we truly understand the problem. Unfortunately, very little is known about the properties and dynamics of ocean plastic pollution – this is why we invest in scientific research. By understanding the sources, transport, and fate of plastic in the ocean, we create the foundation onto which we develop our cleanup solutions.

Research areas

Sampling at sea is key to understanding the quantity, composition, and locations of ocean plastic. We embarked on a series of field expeditions, pushing the boundaries of observational science regarding ocean plastic pollution; in 2015, we conducted the Mega Expedition, crossing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) with over 30 vessels, and subsequently, in 2016, the Aerial Expedition (the first aerial mapping effort of ocean plastic in a subtropical gyre) gave us greater insight into the severity of the problem we aim to solve. In 2018, we published our comprehensive study, concluding that there is up to 16 times more plastic in the GPGP than previously estimated.

While our main objective is to quantify the problem, we also have a strong interest in characterizing ocean plastic pollution. We researched the toxicity of ocean plastic with the analysis of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) found on plastic samples collected in the North Pacific during the Mega Expedition. We also studied the distribution of buoyant plastic in the water column in different weather environments during our North Atlantic expeditions. We are now looking even deeper with sampling at depth several thousand meters below the surface, looking for the missing plastic.

Featured research

Highlighting some of the studies that our scientists and researchers have been working on here at The Ocean Cleanup.

Plastic mass balance

To efficiently plan for our global cleanup strategy, we need to understand where plastic comes from, where it travels, and where it accumulates. With the current state of knowledge, a significant amount of plastic that may have entered the ocean is still unaccounted for. We are currently developing a model framework that simulates the transport of plastic in the global ocean, eventually providing a mass balance budget for plastic in the ocean. With our continued field observation efforts, collecting data in the five oceans from surface to seabed, we are actively looking for the missing plastic.

Mapping the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

After two major expeditions in the North Pacific subtropical waters, including a multi-vessel, field exploration mission in 2015 and the first aerial reconnaissance mission of a garbage patch in 2016, we published our findings on the quantification and characterization of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2018. We estimated that in 2015, the GPGP covered an area of 1.6 million km2 containing nearly 80,000 metric tons of buoyant plastic waste, with debris ranging from large ghost nets and ropes to a multitude of centimeter and millimeter-sized hard plastic fragments.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Explained Illustration by: in60seconds

Global riverine emissions of plastic

Quantifying plastic pollution in the world’s ocean requires a deep understanding of emissions. It is commonly accepted that most plastic found in or near the marine environment is coming from terrestrial sources. Rivers particularly may play an important role in transporting mismanaged plastic waste from land into the ocean. We are developing numerical models for the prediction of plastic emissions from rivers in combination with several field sampling expeditions. Following a systematic methodology, we are conducting research in multiple rivers of the world to create a complete picture of how plastic enters the oceans.

Our latest scientific publications

  • Seine Plastic Debris Transport Tenfolded During Increased River Discharge

    Article in peer-reviewed journal
    October 2019, Frontiers in Marine Science

    Tim van Emmerik, Romain Tramoy, Caroline van Calcar, Soline Alligant, Robin Treilles, Bruno Tassin and Johnny Gasper

  • Marine Debris Polymers on Main Hawaiian Island Beaches, Sea Surface, and Seafloor

    Article in peer-reviewed journal
    October 2019, Environmental Science & Technology

    Kayla C. Brignac, Melissa R. Jung, Cheryl King, Sarah-Jeanne Royer, Lauren Blickley, Megan R. Lamson, James T. Potemra and Jennifer M. Lynch

Scientific Advisory Board

Prof. Dr. Richard Spinrad Marine Technology & Oceanography, Marine Technology Society
Prof. Dr. Alex Oude Elferink International Law of the Sea, Utrecht University
Prof. Dr. Gerhard J. Herndl Ecology and Biological Oceanography, University of Vienna
Prof. Dr. Mirek Kaminski Offshore Structures, Delft University of Technology
Frederik Gerner Chairman on behalf of The Ocean Cleanup

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our team

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