Portrait: ©Erik van Sebille Image:© Shutterstock

20-04-2018

ERC grantee Erik van Sebille is developing advanced modelling tools to help assess the full extent of the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and how it is affecting the marine environment. The tools will help policymakers design targeted measures to address a big and growing issue.

The problem of plastic waste pollution in our oceans is becoming increasingly urgent to address. It is estimated that over 5 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year and that this figure in rapidly growing. Indeed, it is estimated that in the next 5 years global production of plastic will be higher than in the entire 20th century. Moreover, plastic pollution does not only stay on the surface of the ocean but penetrates right to the very depths and indeed into living ocean organisms and the marine food web.
The EU-funded TOPIOS project, which started in April 2017, is creating a novel comprehensive modelling framework that will help us to more accurately assess not only how much plastic is in the ocean, but also where it is and where it came from.   
“We know that the plastic floating on the surface of the ocean represents only a very small percentage of the total amount of plastic going in to the oceans every year,” says Dr Erik van Sebille, who was awarded a grant from the European Research Council. “This means that as much as 99 % of ocean plastic is ‘missing’ – we don’t know exactly where it is or what damage it is doing. TOPIOS aims to fill in the gaps in our understanding.”

3D mapping for clearer direction
The team of researchers working together within TOPIOS will build on well-established previous work to create state-of-the-art hydrodynamic ocean models able to track the movement of plastic through the ocean. The resulting modelling framework will make it possible to simulate the various ways in which plastic is transported around the ocean, whether through fragmentation, sinking, beaching, ocean currents, wave-mixing or ingestion by living organisms.
To achieve this they will use advanced computer modelling combined with extensive field research. The information will feed into 3D maps of the various transport pathways in the ocean, coastlines and marine organisms. These will be used to evaluate a broad range of scenarios and test various hypotheses.  It will also make it possible to assess where the risk of plastic to marine life is the greatest.
“In order to think intelligently about how to clean up the ocean, we need to first know more about how plastics are distributed in the marine environment, their impact on marine life and what the main sources of pollution are,” points out Dr Van Sebille. “This may include, for example, being able to identify the main polluting countries, outlets and industries – thus allowing better targeted policies to reduce plastic waste.”
The results from the TOPIOS project will greatly improve the quality of information available to policymakers and the public on the current state of plastic pollution in our oceans. In doing so, it will provide valuable insights into the best ways of addressing this major problem of our times.