Modeling marine surface microplastic transport to assess optimal removal locations

Marine plastic pollution is an ever-increasing problem that demands immediate mitigation and reduction plans. Here, a model based on satellite-tracked buoy observations and scaled to a large data set of observations on microplastic from surface trawls was used to simulate the transport of plastics floating on the ocean surface from 2015 to 2025, with the goal to assess the optimal marine microplastic removal locations for two scenarios: removing the most surface microplastic and reducing the impact on ecosystems, using plankton growth as a proxy. The simulations show that the optimal removal locations are primarily located off the coast of China and in the Indonesian Archipelago for both scenarios. Our estimates show that 31% of the modeled microplastic mass can be removed by 2025 using 29 plastic collectors operating at a 45% capture efficiency from these locations, compared to only 17% when the 29 plastic collectors are moored in the North Pacific garbage patch, between Hawaii and California. The overlap of ocean surface microplastics and phytoplankton growth can be reduced by 46% at our proposed locations, while sinks in the North Pacific can only reduce the overlap by 14%. These results are an indication that oceanic plastic removal might be more effective in removing a greater microplastic mass and in reducing potential harm to marine life when closer to shore than inside the plastic accumulation zones in the centers of the gyres.

Peter Sherman and Erik van Sebille, Environmental Research Letters, Volume 11, Number 1, 19/01/2016

The article (open access)

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