Mapping the Plastic

October 31, 2018 | Young Professionals
FIG Commission 4 (Hydrography) and the FIG Young Surveyors Network

The effects of plastic pollution on the Earth’s oceans are well documented, potentially catastrophic and increasing exponentially year on year. The UN Environment Programme has calculated that each year more than 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, and costing at least $8 billion in damage to our marine ecosystems. Eighty per cent of all litter in our oceans is made of plastic. This is an intolerable but not insurmountable problem that needs immediate and far-reaching action to remedy.

Eric Solheim, Head of UN Environment, speaking at the launch of the #CleanSeas campaign argued that it was past time to tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. ‘Plastic pollution’ he said ‘is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling on the ocean floor at the North Pole and rising though the food chain onto our dinner tables. We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop’.

The International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) agrees.  A combined initiative of the FIG Young Surveyors Network (YSN) and FIG Commission 4 (Hydrography) has formed a ‘Mapping the Plastic’  Working Group (WG4.3) committed to finding solutions to this deeply concerning global environmental problem.

Rivers have long been identified as a significant contributor to, and enabler of, the plastic pollution of estuarine/coastal and marine environments. As surveying professionals and measurement specialists WG4.3 will focus on quantifying the amount of plastic (and other) waste being dumped into major rivers, river systems, estuaries and deltas at strategic locations around the world. A greater understanding of the practices surrounding the dumping of plastic and the parameters surrounding their transportation in the riverine/estuarine environment will inform the control and regulation of land use practices with an ultimate goal of eradicating the dumping of plastics into river systems.

As rivers are recognised as a major conveyor of the disturbingly large amount of plastic waste polluting the Earth’s oceans, WG4.3 has decided to

  1. Measure the flow of waste at river outfalls to capture the true extent of plastic waste being transported

  2. Focus on the outfalls of major rivers considered to be major waste contributors

  3. Refine and adapt Remote Sensing techniques as the principal data collection tool but with input from in-situ measurements including bathymetric data, current measurement, UAV/LiDAR/aerial photography, GNSS and terrestrial observations and visual inspection, primarily of plastic waste along river banks.

  4. Form relationships and work with others to achieve our goals, acknowledging that we can’t achieve the outcomes we want by ourselves

WG4.3 are fortunate to have the expertise of remote sensing specialists from the University of Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina who have prepared a logical framework matrix for measuring the flow of plastic waste through river systems, particularly in estuaries/deltas using a combination of remote sensing techniques (Landsat 8/Sentinel 2 satellite outputs), ANN modelling (modified to recognise plastic waste above a specified dimension/area) and in-situ data inputs including aerial/UAV, bathymetric and current data Other in-situ data inputs can be accommodated.

As the FIG Working Week 2019 will be held in Hanoi next year the WG4.3 pilot project will be in Vietnam, on either the Mekong River/delta or the Saigon River (near Ho Chi Minh City) in the south.

CSIRO, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is currently undertaking a global plastic pollution survey ( with some of the world's top 20 polluters taking part in the project including China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam and the United States, plus other countries including Australia, South Korea and Taiwan. GreenHub (, a Vietnamese NGO involved in biodiversity conservation, community development, capacity building and networking projects in Vietnam are working with CSIRO in Vietnam, providing local volunteers to undertake a plastic pollution survey at sites in the north of Vietnam.

Both GreenHub and CSIRO have expressed interest in working with WG4.3 as our objectives align and their interests directly parallel ours.

Due to time/budget constraints there are gaps in the CSIRO/GeenHub Vietnam data coverage. The south of the country was not included in the survey so there is an opportunity for WG4.3 to fill this gap. Discussions on extending the survey are progressing and for similar involvement with the wider East Asia Marine Litter Network, based in South Korea. Organisation of the Vietnamese pilot will require some degree of cooperation, site supervision/oversight, dealing with volunteers, in-situ data management/quality control and of course funding.

Simon Ironside
Vice Chair SSSI Hydrography Commission
Chair FIG Commission 4 Working Group 4.3
October 2018

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