Export of plastic debris by rivers into the sea 

Schmidt et al analyzed a global compilation of data on plastic debris in the water column across a wide range of river sizes.


Plastic debris loads, both microplastic (particles <5 mm) and macroplastic (particles >5 mm) are positively related to the mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) generated in the river catchments. This relationship is nonlinear where large rivers with population-rich catchments delivering a disproportionately higher fraction of MMPW into the sea.


The 10 top-ranked rivers transport 88–95% of the global load into the sea. Using MMPW as a predictor we calculate the global plastic debris inputs form rivers into the sea to range between 0.41 and 4 × 106 t/y.


Due to the limited amount of data high uncertainties were expected and ultimately confirmed. The empirical analysis to quantify plastic loads in rivers can be extended easily by additional potential predictors other than MMPW, for example, hydrological conditions.




This compares to 18 tonnes a year by The Thames – which many would argue is still way too high but considerably less than the world’s worst river offenders.

Dr Christian Schmidt, of the Helmholtz Centre, said improving waste management in the river’s catchment areas would go a long way to curbing the plastic pollution problem.

“In countries such as China and India municipal waste is not all collected and even if it is, it is often not properly dumped. Improving waste management in these countries should help to reduce the plastic pollution in rivers.”

Meanwhile, in industrial countries the waste collection rate is practically 100 per cent – but littering, synthetic clothing and household products such as toothpaste means that they are still poring plastic into the sea.

“The main source in developed countries is littering. This could be reduced if, for example, people would stop throwing food packaging out of their car windows,” Dr Schmidt said.





LEBRETON 2017 - Mass of river plastic flowing into oceans in tonnes per year. River contributions are derived from individual watershed characteristics such as population density, mismanaged plastic waste (MPW) production per country and monthly averaged runoff. The model is calibrated against river plastic concentration measurements from Europe, Asia, North and South America.




Every minute one rubbish lorry’s-worth of plastic is dumped into the sea. If we continue at this rate, some estimate that our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. So where does all the plastic come from? New research reveals that just 10 river systems transport more than 90% of the global input of plastic into to the world’s oceans.

Rivers are the arteries of our planet. From tiny tumbling streams to vast sluggish deltas, rivers are the link between the atmosphere, land and oceans. Since time immemorial people have clustered near rivers, taking advantage of the fresh water, fertile land, ready-made transport links and plentiful fish. And of course rivers are also excellent conveyor belts for whisking rubbish away.

By analysing how much plastic is carried by different rivers all over the world, and assessing the amount of littering in areas surrounding rivers, Christian Schmidt, of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, and his colleagues have shown that large river systems act as super-highways in transporting plastic to the sea.


Their research, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, shows that 10 river systems, located in heavily populated regions where littering is common, carry more than 90% of the plastic that ends up in the oceans.


Two are in Africa (the Nile and the Niger) while the other eight are in Asia (the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Haihe, Pearl, Mekong and Amur).


“Halving the plastic input from the catchment areas of these rivers would already be a major success,” says Schmidt in a press statement. Next the researchers want to investigate the speed at which plastic travels from land to sea.


THE DIRTY DOZEN - the ten biggest plastic carriers and which seas they feed:

Yangtze, River Yellow Sea, Asia

Indus, Arabian Sea, Asia

Yellow River, Yellow Sea, Asia

Hai He, Yellow Sea, Asia

Nile, Mediterranean, Africa

Meghna, Bay of Bengal, Asia

Ganges, South China Sea, Asia

Amur, Sea of Okhotsk, Asia

Niger, Gulf of Guinea, Africa

Mekong, South China Sea, Asia






Helmholtz Centre for
Environmental Research
Permoserstr. 15
04318 Leipzig


Phone: +49 341 235 1986
Fax: +49 341 235 1837 


Rivers export of plastic to the sea, Schmidt et al 2017


SCHMIDT OCT 2017 - A substantial fraction of marine plastic debris originates from land-based sources. Rivers potentially act as a major transport pathway for all sizes of plastic debris. 



Dr Christian Schmidt



Christian Schmidt: Department of Hydrogeology, Helmholtz- Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ, Permoserstrasse 15, 04318 Leipzig, Germany*

Tobias Krauth: Department of Environmental Engineering, University of Applied Sciences, Weihenstephan-Triesdorf, Markgrafenstrasse 16, 91746 Weidenbach, Germany (&*)

Stephan Wagner: Department of Analytical Chemistry, Helmholtz-Cen
tre for Environmental Research - UFZ, Permoserstrasse 15, 04318 Leipzig, Germany 

*Corresponding author: 

CITE: Environ. Sci. Technol.2017512112246-12253   Publication Date: October 11, 2017



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JAMBECK 2010 - Global map with each country shaded according to the estimated mass of mismanaged plastic waste [millions ofmetric tons (MT)] generated in 2010 by populations living within 50 km of the coast. 192 countries were considered. Countries not included in the study are shaded white.




FAST FOOD SLOW RECOVERY - If we all work together we can significantly impact on scenes like this. We have been enjoying the benefits of plastic without ensuring that this durable medium does not unduly affect marine life. Unfortunately, retrospective measures will take longer to achieve equilibrium, but we must act now if we want to prevent more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Fortunately, many of the top producers are now looking at circularizing with a view to preventing ocean waste, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.



















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