How Data Is Quantifying the Impact of Plastic on the Environment

There is no denying that plastic is an ingenious material. Composed of long chains of synthetic polymers, plastic is strong, light, and highly flexible. It can be manipulated into a multitude of forms, from drinking straws and bottles to car parts and diapers.

Since the 1907 invention of Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, the world has been plastics crazy. According to Our World in Data, over the past 65 years, annual production of plastics increased nearly 200-fold, to 381 million tonnes.

Unfortunately, it now turns out, the increasing use of this versatile substance has come at a high cost to the planet. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Woods Hole Sea Grant shows that some plastic products can take up to 600 years to break down. Landfills are overflowing, oceans are becoming choked, and wildlife is suffering.

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, oceans will contain more plastic, by weight, than fish. The Ocean Cleanup Project has estimated that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), about 618,00 square-mile area of marine debris between Hawaii and California, contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

Such statistics, along with distressing photographs of birds and mammals tangled-up in — and even consuming — plastic waste, have highlighted the magnitude of the problem. Now, hashtags such as #plasticfree are trending on social media as consumers, governments, and companies respond.

Data is not only being used to track the whereabouts and volume of plastic on our planet; it is supporting the drive to reduce our dependence on it.

The data of where and how much

TOPIOS (Tracking of Plastic in Our Seas) is a 3D mapping platform that uses data to model how plastic litter moves through oceans. The project is coordinated by Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer and climate scientist at the University of Utrecht.

Mikael Kaandorp, a PhD student also based at Utrecht, is investigating the use of machine learning to incorporate plastic distribution data into TOPIOS’ models. Kaandorp explains that more research is needed to determine where most of the plastics that enter the oceans ends-up, “Some rough estimates are in the order of some million tonnes per year, yet we only find about 1 percent of that in the surface waters,” he says.

TOPIOS is trying to work out where the other 99 percent is by modeling the movement of plastics through waterways and oceans. The goal is to find out how much is in surface waters and how much is deeper waters — or on the seabed, beaches, and inside animals who have consumed it.

The Utrecht team simulate plastic litter pathways using a combination of field data and high-resolution ocean simulations. They release “virtual plastics” into their computer-generated models and track them using an open-source particle tracking toolbox called oceanparcels. The code, written in python and C, is accessible via GitHub where it can be maintained by both the TOPIOS team and outside contributors.

“By combining our model, and measurements from researchers measuring plastic concentrations in the oceans, it is possible to create a map in space and time of where all the plastics in the oceans are located,” says Kaandorp.

TOPIOS shows us where the plastic is settling. And Our World in Data, a non-profit website produced by the University of Oxford and Global Change Data Lab, makes plastics-related data freely accessible. It covers topics such as plastic production, sector usage, and waste mismanagement.

The comprehensive plastics database covers the period from 1950 until 2015 . It is offered as part of the site’s wider mission to bring together data on “the powerful, long-run trends reshaping our world. “Other online assets include interactive data visualizations and summaries of scientific literature.

The site also contains a tracker that monitors data on progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Several of those goals include plastics-related targets, such as “By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds.”

The Our World in Data team collate data from three main sources: international institutions, research articles, and statistical agencies — including the OECD, the World Bank, and the UN. The data is used by media organizations around the world, such as The New York Times, the BBC, and El Pais, in their coverage of issues ranging from plastics and poverty to climate change.

The data presented by teams such as TOPIOS and Our World in Data has helped to expose the issue of plastic pollution. Now, it is supporting next steps.

A #plasticfree future?

As governments, businesses, and individuals act, data is already revealing where progress is being made and where it is lacking.

A 2018 UN Environment report reviewed the legislative steps countries are taking to limit the use of three key contributors to plastic pollution: bags, single-use items, such straws and microbeads, found in products such as facial washes and detergents.

The authors found that there had been “surging momentum for plastic bag bans” and that 66 percent of countries worldwide have laid down legislation. However, they also found that plastic microbeads are currently only banned in eight out of the 192 countries reviewed.

Kandroop believes that to be effective, actions need to be more targeted. TOPIOS, he adds, can help devise solutions by helping stakeholders understand where plastic litter is. For example, when plastic sinks quickly and is found close to pollution sources, such as rivers, it makes sense to focus clean-up actions at those locations rather than in the middle of oceans.

If future plastic reduction actions are successful this will become apparent in the TOPIOS model, he continues. “Perhaps it would even be possible to identify countries that are particularly successful in preventing plastic pollution,” he says.

The Our World in Data team is future-focused when it comes to the role of data in changing the world. Their mission statement lays out the group’s lofty aspirations: “If the world wants to be serious about achieving progress we have to measure accurately and publish the results in an understandable and public platform. Only then can everyone see the state of the world today, track where we are moving the right direction, and where we are falling behind.”

A #plasticfree future is an ambitious aim, but data has shown that it is a necessary one. Preventing further harm to the environment now depends on the actions of individuals, businesses, and nations — the power of data may help make a difference.


About the Author:

John Paulsen
John Paulsen is a "Data for Good" advocate, with more than 20 years in the data storage industry. He's helped launch many industry-firsts including HAMR technology, 10K-rpm and 15K-rpm hard drives, drives designed specifically for video and for gaming, Serial ATA drives, fluid dynamic HDD motors, 60TB SSDs, and MACH.2 multi-actuator technology.