Plastic in global rivers: Are floods making it worse?

Caspar T.J. Roebroek*, Shaun Harrigan, Tim H.M. Van Emmerik, Calum Baugh, Dirk Eilander, Christel Prudhomme, Florian Pappenberger

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Riverine plastic pollution is of global concern due to its negative impact on ecosystem health and human livelihood. Recent studies show a strong link between river discharge and plastic transport, but the role of floods is still unresolved. We combined high-resolution mismanaged plastic waste data and river flood extents with increasing return periods to estimate flood-driven plastic mobilisation, from local to global scale. We show that 10 year return period floods already tenfold the global plastic mobilisation potential compared to non-flood conditions. In the worst affected regions, plastic mobilisation increases up to five orders of magnitude. Our results suggest a high inter-annual variability in plastic mobilisation, previously ignored by global plastic transport models. Flood defences reduce plastic mobilisation substantially, but regions vulnerable to flooding often coincide with high plastic mobilisation potential during floods. Consequentially, clean-up and mitigation measures and flood risk management are inherently interdependent and need to be managed holistically.

Original languageEnglish
Article number025003
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number2
Early online date27 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s).

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Floods
  • Plastic mobilisation
  • Riverine plastic pollution


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