Tackling the 2 billion tonne waste problem

27th May 2022
Kiera Sowery

Humans generate over 2 billion tonnes of rubbish per year. This figure is only going to continue to grow. By 2050, global waste is expected to reach 3.5 billion tonnes.

Every year, the UK alone generates 1.8 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste, equating to 36kg per person. What’s more, 10 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in oceans every year. Plastic pollution harms communities, threatens marine life and animal and human health. Plastic pollution is one of the most urgent threats facing the planet and humanity’s health, but what are the options?

The Minderoo Foundation, a modern philanthropic organisation driving change, has developed a tool that has identified 2,802 waste sites across 25 countries. These include all South-East Asia, Australia, and the top 20 countries in annual plastic leakage into the oceans according to Science Advances. The tool, Global Plastic Watch, uses advanced satellite data technology and machine learning to measure piles of plastic waste from space. Over 30% of detected sites are within 250m of waterway. The development of the tool stems from the Plastic Waste Makers Index released in 2021, revealing the scale and sources of the global crisis.

Many aren’t aware of how dangerous plastic waste is to the organic environment. It is crucial that illegal and legal plastic waste stockpiles are prevented from entering the oceanic environment to limit the harm it can cause. Once the plastic enters the ocean, the plastic will officially enter the human environment.

Global Plastic Watch combines earth observation with artificial intelligence creating a near-real-time high resolution map of plastic pollution, acting as an open-source dataset of plastic waste across dozens of countries. The tools aim is to help authorities to better manage plastic leakage into the marine environment. Most of the current understanding about plastic waste comes from models and estimates, whereas now it is informed by real data that can be used to guide solutions.

Global Plastic Watch is aimed at supporting efforts to understand the magnitudes and effects of land-based plastic waste sites, enabling them to better address undocumented sites and monitor those that pose environmental and health concerns. Governments, industry researchers and communities can evaluate and monitor the risk of land-based plastic waste sites and prioritise investments in solutions.

Global Plastic Watch uses remote sensing satellite imagery from the European Space Agency and a machine learned model created in collaboration with Earthrise Media. Capable of determining the size and scale of land-based plastic waste sites which are factors fuelling the growing problem of plastic pollution in rivers and oceans.

Until now, it has been difficult to effectively identify and measure plastic waste build-up in a systematic way, and data and transparency are vital tools for this.

Global Plastic Watch will continue to work with its partners to refine its model, further increasing its accuracy as it expands its coverage to different sites and countries throughout 2022. The question is, has this solution come too little too late? Current rates of global plastic emissions may trigger irreversible effects. This solution could help eliminate the harmful effects of plastic on people and the planet by providing a tool for people to make evidence-based decisions on mitigating the global plastic pollution problem.

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