24 Apr 2020 - New research on satellite imagery can distinguish litter from natural debris with 86% accuracy, improving tracking of floating plastics and support clean-up operations in future.
For as long as there has been plastic garbage it’s managed to find its way into the ocean, but never quite like it did a couple of years ago off the Greek island of Lesbos. There, a team of people collected a small dump’s worth of plastic bottles, bags, and fishing nets, assembled it on platforms, and floated them (temporarily) out to sea.
The plastic barges were an experiment to see whether they’d be picked up by satellites and high-flying drones. The results, used in research published today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, showed that satellites could pick up the agglomerations of plastic bobbing at sea. Using artificial intelligence, researchers were also able to discern trash from from natural materials like seaweed, wood, and even sea foam.
Spotting so-called “macroplastics” (bits, bags, and bottles larger than 5 millimeters) before they degrade into smaller particles has been attempted before. Until recently, however, satellites haven’t been able to produce images in enough detail and with enough frequency to accurately pinpoint and track plastic debris. Previously published estimates show that as much as 12.7 million metric tons gets dumped into the ocean each year.
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