Article in peer reviewed journal
September 2018, Environmental Science & Technologys

Shungudzemwoyo P. Garaba, Jen Aitken, Boyan Slat, Heidi M. Dierssen, Laurent Lebreton, Oliver Zielinski and Julia Reisser

  • Publication type: Article in peer-reviewed journal
  • Journal: Environmental Science & Technology
  • Collaborators: The Ocean Cleanup Foundation (NL), Department of Marine Sciences, University of Connecticut (US), Marine Sensor Systems Group, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg (DE), Teledyne Optech (USA), The Modelling House (NZ), Australian Institute of Marine Science, Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre (AUS), Red Sea Research Center, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (SA).
  • DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02855
  • Submitted: 28.05.2018
  • Accepted: 20.08.2018
  • Published: 25.09.2018


Here, we present a proof-of-concept on remote sensing of ocean plastics using airborne shortwave IR (SWIR) imagery. We captured red, green, and blue (RGB) and hyperspectral SWIR imagery with equipment mounted on a C-130 aircraft surveying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” at a height of 400 m and a speed of 140 knots. We recorded the position, size, color, and type (container, float, ghost net, rope, and unknown) of every plastic piece identified in the RGB mosaics. We then selected the top 30 largest items within each of our plastic type categories (0.6−6.8 m in length) to investigate SWIR spectral information obtained with a SASI-600 imager (950−2450 nm). Our analyses revealed unique SWIR spectral features common to plastics. The SWIR spectra obtained (N = 118 items) were quite similar both in magnitude and shape. Nonetheless, some spectral variability was observed, likely influenced by differences in the object optical properties, the level of water submersion, and an intervening atmosphere. Our simulations confirmed that the ∼1215 and ∼1732 nm absorption features have potential applications in detecting ocean plastics from spectral information. Our study also explores the potential of SWIR remote sensing technology for detecting and quantifying ocean plastics, thus providing relevant information to those developing better monitoring solutions for ocean plastic pollution. Ocean plastic can persist in sea surface waters, eventually accumulating in remote areas of the world’s oceans. Here we characterize and quantify a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Our model, calibrated with data from multi-vessel and aircraft surveys, predicted at least 79 (45-129) thousand tonnes of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million km2; a figure four to sixteen times higher than previously reported. We explain this difference through the use of more robust methods to quantify larger debris. Over three-quarters of the GPGP mass was carried by debris larger than 5 cm and at least 46% was comprised of fishing nets. Microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass but 94% of the estimated 1.8 (1.1-3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area. Plastic collected during our study has specific characteristics such as small surface-to-volume ratio, indicating that only certain types of debris have the capacity to persist and accumulate at the surface of the GPGP. Finally, our results suggest that ocean plastic pollution within the GPGP is increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.

  • Aerial survey, Marine debris, Oceanography, Plastic pollution, Remote sensing