Satellites used in the fight against marine waste

coastal plastic polllution

Geospatial scientists have found a way to detect plastic marine waste on remote beaches that are not visible in conventional satellite images.

Millions of tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. While stopping the flow is crucial, so is tracking down what’s already there so we can clean it up.

The study, published in Remote Sensing, used the unique infrared signals reflected by plastics to identify even tiny scraps among vast stretches of sand and rocks. It sets the foundation for allowing plastics to be detected within satellite images where plastics are smaller than a pixel.

Jenna Guffogg, lead author of the study and RMIT PhD candidate said monitoring beaches rather than oceans made sense because it’s easier to remove the rubbish.

“Stopping plastic from entering the ocean is a global challenge. But if we can find and remove them quickly, it’s the next best thing,” she said.

“At the moment, plastic debris are tracked by passing vessels notifying authorities. Using satellites will allow more frequent and reliable observations. Our work could let organisations who do remote coastal and marine waste clean-up management know where to focus their efforts.”

Guffogg and her team completed fieldwork on the remote beaches of Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands, using sensing equipment to capture how infra-red light was reflected by different types of plastic found on the Islands.

To calculate how much plastic washed up on the shore, researchers used spectral library plots to compare plastics’ reflectance with its cover. They compared spectral readings from the weathered plastics with virgin plastics that hadn’t been exposed to environmental degradation and found little difference between results.

This means despite the shape, colour or condition of the plastic, there’s a good chance it can be detected remotely, and the location shared with clean-up groups. Other uses could include tracking an area’s health, judging by the amount of plastic in the environment.

Simon Jones, RMIT Professor of Remote Sensing said the study was about looking at ways to use satellites to see things the human eye can’t.

“In the next few years, we’re going to launch satellites with even better remote sensing capabilities,” he said. “We’re developing ways to use these new satellites in the fight against marine waste.”

Future studies by Guffogg and the team aim to unlock the true extent of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands’ plastic problem.

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