3 mins read 15 Feb 2022

New Method for Detecting Beach Litter with Satellites

A team of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have found a way to use spectral analysis to detect tiny pieces of plastic on remote beaches. 

Credit: Partonez/Wikimedia Commons.

Pollution is a major issue around the globe. While there have been efforts to stop pollution from occurring further, there is still a need to study and monitor the pollution that has already been created. 

Huge amounts of plastic have ended up in the oceans due to pollution. This is evident from the fact that there are literal garbage patches in the ocean, but it can also be seen in the amount of plastic that washes up on the shore. 

A new study from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) looked at how to improve the detection of plastic on remote beaches using satellite technology. The new techniques using spectral analysis tested in this research could fill gaps in our current plastic-detection methods.   

Lead author of the study and RMIT PhD candidate Jenna Guffogg said monitoring beaches rather than oceans made sense because it's easier to remove the rubbish.

“Stopping plastic from entering the ocean is a global challenge. But if we can find and remove them quickly, it's the next best thing,” she said.

“At the moment, plastic debris are tracked by passing vessels notifying authorities. Using satellites will allow more frequent and reliable observations.”

“Our work could let organisations who do remote coastal and marine waste clean-up management know where to focus their efforts.”

Guffogg and her team completed fieldwork on the remote beaches of Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands, using sensing equipment to capture how infrared light was reflected by different types of plastic found on the Islands. They were able to calculate how much plastic had washed up onto the shore and found that there was little difference between weathered and not-weathered plastics when it came to their reflectance. Using these unique signals reflected by the plastics, satellites would be able to spot tiny pieces of plastic, even those smaller than a pixel. 

RMIT Professor of Remote Sensing, Simon Jones, said the study was about looking at ways we can use satellites to see things the human eye can't.

“In the next few years, we're going to launch satellites with even better remote sensing capabilities,” he said.

“We're developing ways to use these new satellites in the fight against marine waste.”