A plastic waste site in Indonesia leads towards the water. Pic: Maxar Technologies / Earthrise Media

The world’s plastic waste mapped from space for the first time

Sprawling dumpsites of plastic waste can now be mapped from space with a new tool using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence, in what is believed to be a world first.

Whether it’s burning trash on a Sri Lankan beach or an Indonesian site seeping into a river, Global Plastic Watch (GPW) can detect sites as small as five by five meters and present them on an interactive plastic world map in near real time.

“It’s not about naming and shaming” but about “empowering governments” with information to help solve the problem, explained Fabien Laurier, a key architect at GPW.

The free public tool, designed to help prevent plastic from flowing into the ocean, has been “applauded” by the United Nations and is already in use by the Indonesian government, the fifth largest contributor to ocean plastics.

“It’s hard to control what you can’t measure” or even locate, Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida of the UN Environment Program told Sky News. She hoped governments would use the “cutting edge” technology to reduce “plastic waste, open landfills and the burning of waste”.

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The Street View feature helps check sites and if they are leaking plastic into the surrounding land and water. Photo: Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media
Historical records help users track how sites have evolved over time, including this one in Bali, Indonesia, which grew significantly between 2014 and 2021. Photo: Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media
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Historical records show how this site in Bali, Indonesia grew significantly between 2014 and 2021. Photo: Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media

Indonesian Minister Ibu Nani Hendiarti said they have already used it to track down undocumented or illegal sites.

Every minute of every day, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans, killing an estimated 100,000 marine mammals each year.

Identifying plastic waste sites ‘is totally new’

Mr Laurier called plastic pollution “one of the greatest environmental crises of our time”, posing “enormous environmental and human health problems”.

“And when it hits the ocean, it breaks down into nanoplastics and basically pollutes and contaminates the entire food chain,” he said.

Although a similar process is already widely used to track deforestation, plastic site data is usually based on models and estimates.

“Identifying waste sites in satellite imagery is totally new and something very difficult to do at all, [even] on a small scale,” Caleb Kruse, senior data scientist at GPW, said in a video call from Berkeley, Calif.

Many of the sites identified are perfectly well managed, while others are spewing litter, according to the team.

The lack of barriers between the landfill and the river means the plastic is likely being washed into the water, according to the GPW.  Photo: Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media
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No barrier between this site and water, GPW. Photo: Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media
The team is looking for typical features to identify plastic waste sites.  The houses give a sense of scale.  Photo: Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media
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The team is looking for typical features to identify plastic waste sites. The houses give a sense of scale. Photo: Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media

Mr Kruse’s team trained artificial intelligence to comb through European Space Agency satellite images for “donable” features of plastic sites.

Sharing a screenshot of a site in Java, Mr Kruse chose a road for trucks depositing the waste, an entrance facility and gray-brown textured areas showing mounds of waste.

“Huge” scale of some sites

“You can see it’s almost like an avalanche of trash that [appears to be] just flowing in this river,” he said.

To give a sense of the “enormous” scale of the site, he pointed his cursor at a house across the river, tiny compared to the gray-brown sprawl of rubbish.

Just a “house-sized” amount of trash “can be really substantial,” he said.

Once identified, each location is then checked by a trained examiner and cross-checked against other datasets to flag warning signs like proximity to waterways or people, or whether soil type makes it more likely the flow of plastic into the water.

Photo: Global Plastic Watch/Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media
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Photo: Global Plastic Watch/Maxar Technologies/Earthrise Media
GPW has located hundreds of undocumented and illegal sites throughout Indonesia - see here, although many are grouped together
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GPW has located hundreds of undocumented and illegal sites throughout Indonesia, marked here in clusters

“The crazy thing is we find sites like this everywhere,” Mr Kruse said, as he flashed image after image of the litter sites on his screen.

Global waste hotspots

The interactive website identified hundreds of litter sites in 26 countries, which account for more than 80% of the plastic in the world’s waterways.

Many of these countries will deal with waste that has been exported by other countries, as well as their own. The UK ships more than half of its plastic waste each year. Western countries also have their own “problems” with landfills, he said.

The process behind GPW is being reviewed for publication in a scientific journal.

Mr Kruse is lucid that the tool is not “the ultimate dataset on plastic waste”, but hopes that governments, NGOs and communities can use it as a starting point to focus on waste hotspots that need to be tackled first.

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