More than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global riverine plastic emissions into the ocean


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.

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Tim van Emmerik


Ruud van der Ent


Lourens J. J. Meijer


Laurent Lebreton


Christian Schmidt

April 30, 2021
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