Plastic pollution in aquatic ecosystems is a growing threat to ecosystem health and human livelihood. Recent studies show that the majority of environmental plastics accumulate within river systems for years, decades and potentially even longer. Long-term and system-scale observations are key to improve the understanding of transport and retention dynamics, to identify sources and sinks, and to assess potential risks. The goal of this study was to quantify and explain the variation in floating plastic transport in the Rhine-Meuse delta, using a novel 1-year observational data set. We found a strong positive correlations between floating plastic transport and discharge. During peak discharge events, plastic transport was found up to six times higher than under normal conditions. Plastic transport varied up to a factor four along the Rhine and Meuse rivers, which is hypothesized to be related to the complex river network, locations of urban areas, and tidal dynamics. Altogether, our findings demonstrate the important role of hydrology as driving force of plastic transport dynamics. Our study emphasizes the need for exploring other factors that may explain the spatiotemporal variation in floating plastic transport. The world's most polluted rivers are connected to the ocean through complex deltas. Providing reliable observations and data-driven insights in the transport and dynamics are key to optimize plastic pollution prevention and reduction strategies. With our paper we aim to contribute to both advancing the fundamental understanding of plastic transport dynamics, and the establishment of long-term and harmonized data collection at the river basin scale.
- water quality