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On-going projects

River of Plastic

The journey of plastics along the Mekong and its ultimate fate in the world’s oceans

The
Challenge

The Mekong is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, transporting an estimated 40 thousand tonnes of plastic into the world’s oceans each year. By 2050, the regional population will grow by >110 million people, increasing waste in the coral triangle, the most biodiverse marine area on our planet, situated near the Mekong’s mouth. Understanding how plastic flows along the Mekong into the ocean is key to reducing its impact.

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Over 90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just 10 rivers*

Different plastics have different densities; although currently unquantified, this results in plastic being transported at different depths in rivers, and ultimately oceans. Less than 1% is found at the surface while the remaining 99% is unaccounted for. Quantifying plastic distribution with depth is key to understanding both its source and how it is transported, and concentrated, in rivers and oceans. Predicting plastic transport in rivers is vital to evaluate its social and environmental threat, where it impacts multiple food chains, and to develop solutions to mitigate ocean pollution.

*World Economic Forum, 2018

The
Approach

Lead researchers

dan-parsons robert-dorrell freija-mendrik chris-hackney

Project funded by

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Project partners

Newcastle University

Southern Institute of Water Resource Research (SIWRR), Vietnam

Pannasastra University, Cambodia

This project applies a coupled physical and social approach to understand plastic waste transport through the Mekong. Across the course of the project we, along with our in country partners, will undertake physical sampling of microplastic concentration throughout the Mekong basin in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In doing so we will identify population and development gradients in microplastic concentration. By sampling through the water column we will also be able to show how different types of plastic are transported at different depth, ultimately controlling their interaction with fish and other freshwater and marine species.

Coupled with this, we will document the perceptions of local communities throughout the Mekong basin in a series of video workshops and documentary style films. We will explore how local communities use plastic in everyday life and how they may be able to develop low-cost interventions to reduce their plastic waste.

The Impact

By working with local partners and directly communicating with local communities we will raise awareness of plastic pollution across the Mekong basin. We will target policy interventions to reduce reliance on plastic and explore traditional alternatives to plastic. Our sampling and development of new hydrodynamic relationships between plastics concentration, type and density will enable greater appreciation of the transport mechanisms by which plastic enters the global ocean. This will help us better predict where, when and how microplastics are distributed through the ocean and how they interact with biology.

Other on-going research projects