April 2021, article in peer-reviewed journal
Science Advances

Lourens J.J. Meijer, Tim van Emmerik, Ruud van der Ent, Christian Schmidt and Laurent Lebreton

  • Publication type: Article in peer-reviewed journal
  • Publication journal: Science Advances
  • Collaborators: The Ocean Cleanup (NL) Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management Group Wageningen University (NL), Department of Water Management, Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Delft University of Technology (NL), Department of Physical Geography, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University (NL), Department Aquatic Ecosystem Analysis, Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ (DE), Department of Hydrogeology, Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research– UFZ (DE), The Modelling House (NZ)
  • Publication date: 04.30.21
  • DOI: doi/10.1126/sciadv.aaz5803.


Plastic waste increasingly accumulates in the marine environment, but data on the distribution and quantification of riverine sources required for development of effective mitigation are limited. Our model approach includes geographically distributed data on plastic waste, land use, wind, precipitation, and rivers and calculates the probability for plastic waste to reach a river and subsequently the ocean. This probabilistic approach highlights regions that are likely to emit plastic into the ocean. We calibrated our model using recent field observations and show that emissions are distributed over more rivers than previously thought by up to two orders of magnitude. We estimate that more than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global annual emissions, which range between 0.8 million and 2.7 million metric tons per year, with small urban rivers among the most polluting. These high-resolution data allow for the focused development of mitigation strategies and technologies to reduce riverine plastic emissions