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Floating macrolitter leaked from Europe into the ocean


Riverine systems act as converging pathways for discarded litter within drainage basins, becoming key elements in gauging the transfer of mismanaged waste into the ocean. However, riverine litter data are scarce and biased towards microplastics, generally lacking information about larger items. Based on the first ever database of riverine floating macrolitter across Europe, we have estimated that between 307 and 925 million litter items are released annually from Europe into the ocean. The plastic fraction represented 82% of the observed litter, mainly fragments and single-use items (that is, bottles, packaging and bags). Our modelled estimates show that a major portion of the total litter loading is routed through small-sized drainage basins (<100 km2), indicating the relevance of small rivers, streams and coastal run-off. Moreover, the major contribution of high-income countries to the macrolitter inputs suggests that reducing ocean pollution cannot be achieved only by improving waste management, but also requires changing consumption habits and behaviour to curb waste generation at source. The inability of countries with well-developed recovery systems to control the leakage of waste into the environment further supports the need to regulate the production and use of plastic on a global scale.

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Fig. 1: Top riverine FM litter items and materials in European rivers.
Fig. 2: Floating macrolitter flux and annual loading in 42 rivers from 11 countries.
Fig. 3: Litter transfer efficiency per river basin.
Fig. 4: Spatial distribution of FML from Europe into the ocean.
Fig. 5: Distribution of FML per country, ocean region and drainage basin categories.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available at and from the corresponding author upon request. Datasets include a GIS shapefile for the estimates of ‘annual floating macrolitter loading’ (FML) obtained in the modelling output.


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We acknowledge the additional members (coordinators and observers) of RiLON, listed in Supplementary Data 5, for their support in the field data collection and feedback during the data quality control. D.G.-F. was supported by the JRC institutional exploratory project RIMMEL (272346), PLASTREND (BBVA Foundation) and the European Union (H2020-MSCA-IF-2018 846843 - LitRivus). J.V. and C.M.-C. were supported by the MIDaS project (Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, CTM2016-77106-R, AEI/FEDER/UE).

Author information




D.G.-F., A.C. and G.H. conceived and drafted the present study; they contributed equally to the work. D.G.-F., A.C., J.V. and C.M.-C. analysed the data and prepared the results. The rest of the authors coordinated and participated in the field data collection and commented on the data quality assessment for the RIMMEL database. All authors read and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel González-Fernández.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Figs. 1–5 and Table 1.

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Supplementary Data

The file contains five spreadsheets (Supplementary Data 1–5) with the data used to produce the analyses and results presented in the main manuscript.

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González-Fernández, D., Cózar, A., Hanke, G. et al. Floating macrolitter leaked from Europe into the ocean. Nat Sustain 4, 474–483 (2021).

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