Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Floating macrolitter leaked from Europe into the ocean

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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 https://marinelitterlab.eu/ 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.

References

  1. 1.

    Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Commitee and the Committee of the Regions. A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy (European Commission, 2018).

  2. 2.

    GESAMP Sources, Fate and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Part 2 of a Global Assessment (eds Kershaw, P. J. et al.) (International Maritime Organization, 2016).

  3. 3.

    NOAA NOAA Marine Debris Program, Strategic Plan 2016 - 2020 (US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, Office of Response and Restoration, Marine Debris Division, 2015); https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/

  4. 4.

    Marine Plastic Debris and Microplastics: Global Lessons and Research to Inspire Action and Guide Policy Change (United Nations Environment Programme, 2016).

  5. 5.

    Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R. & Law, K. L. Production, uses, and fate of all plastics ever made. Sci. Adv. 3, e1700782 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Lebreton, L. & Andrady, A. Future scenarios of global plastic waste generation and disposal. Palgrave Commun. 5, 6 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Lau, W. W. Y. et al. Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution. Science 369, 1455–1461 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Rillig, M. C. & Lehmann, A. Microplastic in terrestrial ecosystems. Science 368, 1430–1431 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Huerta Lwanga, E. et al. Field evidence for transfer of plastic debris along a terrestrial food chain. Sci. Rep. 7, 14071 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Jambeck, J. R. et al. Plastic waste inputs from lansd into the ocean. Science 347, 768–771 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Lebreton, L. C. M. et al. River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans. Nat. Commun. 8, 15611 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Schmidt, C., Krauth, T. & Wagner, S. Export of plastic debris by rivers into the sea. Environ. Sci. Technol. 51, 12246–12253 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Dris, R. et al. Beyond the ocean: contamination of freshwater ecosystems with (micro-)plastic particles. Environ. Chem. 12, 539–550 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Breuninger, E. et al. Plastics in European freshwater environments. In Conference on Plastics in Freshwater Environments (eds Bänsch-Baltruschat, B. et al.) 16–71 (Umweltbundesamt, 2017).

  15. 15.

    van Emmerik, T., Strady, E., Kieu-Le, T.-C., Nguyen, L. & Gratiot, N. Seasonality of riverine macroplastic transport. Sci. Rep. 9, 13549 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Vriend, P. et al. Rapid assessment of floating macroplastic transport in the Rhine. Front. Mar. Sci. 7, 10 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Schöneich-Argent, R. I., Dau, K. & Freund, H. Wasting the North Sea? – A field-based assessment of anthropogenic macrolitter loads and emission rates of three German tributaries. Environ. Pollut. 263, 114367 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Eriksen, M. et al. Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS ONE 9, e111913 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    González, D. et al. Riverine Litter Monitoring - Options and Recommendations (Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2016); https://doi.org/10.2788/461233

  20. 20.

    Moore, C. J., Lattin, G. L. & Zellers, A. F. Quantity and type of plastic debris flowing from two urban rivers to coastal waters and beaches of Southern California. Rev. Gest. Cost. Integr. 11, 65–73 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Carson, H. S. et al. Tracking the sources and sinks of local marine debris in Hawaii. Mar. Environ. Res. 84, 76–83 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Crosti, R., Arcangeli, A., Campana, I., Paraboschi, M. & González-Fernández, Z. ‘Down to the river’: amount, composition, and economic sector of litter entering the marine compartment, through the Tiber river in the Western Mediterranean Sea. Rend. Lincei Sc. Fis. Nat. 29, 859–866 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Castro-Jiménez, J., González-Fernández, D., Fornier, M., Schmidt, N. & Sempéré, R. Macro-litter in surface waters from the Rhone River: plastic pollution and loading to the NW Mediterranean Sea. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 146, 60–66 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    González-Fernández, D. & Hanke, G. Toward a harmonized approach for monitoring of riverine floating macro litter inputs to the marine environment. Front. Mar. Sci. 4, 86 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    van Emmerik, T. et al. Seine plastic debris transport tenfolded during increased river discharge. Front. Mar. Sci. 6, 642 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 Establishing a Framework for Community Action in the Field of Marine Environmental Policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive) (European Commission, 2008).

  27. 27.

    Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 Establishing a Framework for Community Action in the Field of Water Policy (European Commission, 2000).

  28. 28.

    Directive (EU) 2019/904 on the Reduction of the Impact of Certain Plastic Products on the Environment (European Commission, 2019).

  29. 29.

    European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Columbia University & CIESIN GHS population grid, derived from GPW4, multitemporal (1975, 1990, 2000, 2015) (Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2015); http://data.europa.eu/89h/jrc-ghsl-ghs_pop_gpw4_globe_r2015a

  30. 30.

    De Jager, A. & Vogt, J. Rivers and Catchments of Europe - Catchment Characterisation Model (CCM) (Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2007); http://data.europa.eu/89h/fe1878e8-7541-4c66-8453-afdae7469221

  31. 31.

    Pierdomenico, M., Casalbore, D. & Chiocci, F. L. Massive benthic litter funnelled to deep sea by flash-flood generated hyperpycnal flows. Sci. Rep. 9, 5330 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Cózar, A. et al. Plastic accumulation in the Mediterranean Sea. PLoS ONE 10, e0121762 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Hurley, R., Woodward, J. & Rothwell, J. J. Microplastic contamination of river beds significantly reduced by catchment-wide flooding. Nat. Geosci. 11, 251–257 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Axelsson, C. & van Sebille, E. Prevention through policy: urban macroplastic leakages to the marine environment during extreme rainfall events. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 124, 211–227 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Small, C. & Nicholls, R. J. A global analysis of human settlement in coastal zones. J. Coast. Res. 19, 584–599 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Grill, G. et al. Mapping the world’s free-flowing rivers. Nature 569, 215–221 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Danube River Basin District: Part ABasin-Wide Overview (ICPDR, 2005): https://www.icpdr.org/main/sites/default/files/nodes/documents/danube_basin_analysis_2004.pdf

  38. 38.

    Tramoy, R. et al. Assessment of the plastic inputs from the Seine basin to the sea using statistical and field approaches. Front. Mar. Sci. 6, 151 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Schmidt, C., Krauth, T. & Wagner, S. Correction to export of plastic debris by rivers into the sea. Environ. Sci. Technol. 52, 927 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Kataoka, T. & Nihei, Y. Quantification of floating riverine macro-debris transport using an image processing approach. Sci. Rep. 10, 2198 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Lieshout, C., Oeveren, K., Emmerik, T. & Postma, E. Automated river plastic monitoring using deep learning and cameras. Earth Space Sci. 7, e2019EA000960 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Brooks, A. L., Wang, S. & Jambeck, J. R. The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade. Sci. Adv. 4, 131 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Galgani, F. et al. Guidance on Monitoring of Marine Litter in European Seas (Joint Research Centre, European Commission, 2013); https://doi.org/10.2788/99475

  44. 44.

    González-Fernández, D., Hanke, G. & RiLON Floating Macro Litter in European Rivers - Top Items (European Commission, 2018); https://doi.org/10.2760/316058

  45. 45.

    Schirinzi, G. F. et al. Riverine anthropogenic litter load to the Mediterranean Sea near the metropolitan area of Barcelona, Spain. Sci. Total Environ. 714, 136807 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    European Catchments and Rivers Network System (Ecrins) (European Environment Agency, 2012); https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/data/european-catchments-and-rivers-network

  47. 47.

    Country Boundaries. Admin 0 – Countries v4.1.0 (Natural Earth, 2021); www.naturalearthdata.com

  48. 48.

    Hoornweg, D. & Bhada-Tata, P. What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management (World Bank Group, 2012); http://hdl.handle.net/10986/17388

  49. 49.

    Davison, A. C. & Hinkley, D. V. Bootstrap Methods and their Application (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997); https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511802843

  50. 50.

    Europe Seas (European Environment Agency, 2021); https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/data/europe-seas-1

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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

Reporting Summary

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.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

González-Fernández, D., Cózar, A., Hanke, G. et al. Floating macrolitter leaked from Europe into the ocean. Nat Sustain 4, 474–483 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00722-6

Download citation

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing