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Tracking ocean plastic to river sources can aid management efforts

The world’s ocean plastic pollution crisis is only expected to get worse in the coming decades as more and more microplastics and non-degradable plastics enter the oceans.

Tracking the sources of these plastics is challenging, and researchers are working to understand how plastics travel through watersheds worldwide and filter out into the ocean.

Now, a new global initiative called the 100 Plastic Rivers Project led by the University of Birmingham aims to shed more light on how some plastic pollution enters the ocean from rivers and streams.

Researchers from over 60 locations worldwide are part of the of the project and working to collect sediment and water samples from rivers and river mouths. If scientists can gain a better understanding of how microplastics and other plastic pollution is filtered through watersheds and accumulate in river sediments, it will be easier to tackle these problems at the source and reduce ocean plastic pollution.

“Even if we all stopped using plastic right now, there would still be decades, if not centuries-worth of plastics being washed down rivers and into our seas,” said Stefan Krause, a professor at the University of Birmingham.

As sediment and water samples are collected, the researchers will analyze the primary microplastics like microbeads and secondary microplastics like fibers from clothing that have broken down over time in the samples.

One crucial aspect of the project is to create a standard framework for sampling river sediments. A team from the University of Birmingham provided members of the 100 Plastic Rivers Project with a toolkit and detailed instructions to ensure that all samples are collected and analyzed with the same methodology.

In a pilot study conducted by the University of Birmingham that focused on rivers in the UK and France Channel Coast, researchers found that there was a larger variety of plastics than anticipated.

The results of that initial study only further emphasize the extensive global problems with pollution and its sources.

“We’re getting more and more aware of the problems this is causing in our oceans, but we are now only starting to look at where these plastics are coming from, and how they’re accumulating in our river systems,” said Krause. “We need to understand this before we can really begin to understand the scale of the risk that we’re facing.”

The first results of the 100 Plastic Rivers Project will be presented later this month at the General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Main Image Credit: Benedek Alpar/Shutterstock

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