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8 March 2021 5 min read

Dr Denise Hardesty has been talking trash at CSIRO for almost 15 years. After all, she is a plastic pollution researcher.

Scientists estimate there are trillions of plastic pieces in our oceans. About eight million tonnes of plastic flow into the world’s oceans annually. We also estimate there are 14 million tonnes of microplastics on the seafloor.

Denise investigates what, how and why plastic pollution ends up on land and in our oceans. She also looks at ways to stop pollution littering our environment, including solutions throughout the supply chain.

We discuss her research and how her passion for ecology and the planet propelled her into where she is now.

Denise Hardesty: plastic pollution researcher

Denise and her team conduct surveys around the world to understand how big the plastic waste problem is.

"Our research extends from counting rubbish in communities, along roadways and on the beach, to estimating microplastics on the seafloor and whether marine debris floats on the surface or sinks to the seafloor," Denise said.

"We’re looking at how plastics can be stopped from entering the environment in the first place and encouraging us to all treat plastic as a valuable commodity. This approach supports a circular economy."

Each year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials are extracted and used globally for plastics, with only nine per cent recycled.

"The aim is to turn it from a waste into a useful product. By understanding what causes or drives where our pollution ends up, we can develop solutions before plastic becomes waste and ends up in the environment," she said.

"One exciting part of my work is engaging with local, state, national and international partners to help solve their plastic problems. We do this in ways that are appropriate, inexpensive, and resonate with the people in their communities.

"We’re also working with Microsoft and using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to increase our abilities to quantify and identify plastic waste in waterways around the world."

Why use AI?

The challenge with monitoring litter, or counting and recording trash in the environment, is it takes lots of people lots of time. Scientists must conduct visual counts and record what they find on the ground. It’s incredibly time-consuming and labour intensive. It also limits how much and where it can be done.

"This is where AI can make a really big difference," Denise said.

The AI used by Denise and her team was developed in partnership with Microsoft and its Azure cloud computing services. Together, they created an automated system for identifying and monitoring litter along rivers.

"Using AI, we can process images quickly, saving time and money. This improves the efficiency of our work and ensures we collect high-quality data," she said.

"And it’s scalable for much better environmental monitoring. Machines can process this information quickly, and accurately, allowing us to scale up our research efforts exponentially."

Using cameras placed under bridges, this AI technology helps the team quickly and intelligently identify the amount and the types of rubbish in our waterways.

"We’re applying this research in Hobart (Tasmania), London (England) and Dhaka (Bangladesh) right now. We, and multiple potential partners, are looking to take this to other cities and countries in the coming months and years," Denise said.

"By knowing how much and what types of rubbish is out there, we can better reduce and recover this waste so it can be turned into valuable products before it gets out to the environment. We can also critically, develop and put in place intervention efforts to stop it ending up there in the first place." an accessible version of this video, please watch this video on YouTube.

AI for now and the long-term

This AI research currently supports our mission in development to end plastic waste. Denise believes the use of AI for waste management and environmental protection will be around for a long time.

"I think the opportunities are truly endless. From counting trash to boats to seabirds on remote islands - the applications are only limited by the ideas we come up with and the vision we have," Denise said.

"By working with local municipalities, we can apply smart sensors and AI to improve waste management where it is happening on the front line. As a result, it makes management safer, less expensive, and more efficient. If we don’t manage our stormwater drains, they can easily and often overflow. This results in trash ending up travelling from the waterways out into our oceans."

The limitations of traditional monitoring that AI fixes means plastic pollution can now be monitored in a variety of contexts. And these situations are beyond what's accessible to Denise and her team.

"We can use AI to monitor remote places that are difficult and expensive to access. We can apply these approaches to scale up our data collection in huge ways," she said.

"The technology is moving quickly, and I see us using AI to improve our knowledge, to manage threatened species, to improve our work efficiency in so many ways!

"Along with being able to improve data collection on rubbish in our waterways through object recognition, we are also working with local councils to improve the function of their rubbish traps, known as gross pollutant traps, which are installed in stormwater drains."

Denise’s career isn’t a waste

Denise has had a connection to the ocean since she was a child. So, it makes sense that she ended up in a career in marine ecology.

"I always loved being outside and I was super inquisitive, asking lots of questions. Growing up, I was passionate about sports and exploring the outdoors," she said.

"I had intended to go to university on an athletics scholarship and study biology. That changed with a serious knee injury. It was then that I became more focussed on my interest in science. It's a dream come true to combine my passion for the environment as a working biologist."

However, Denise started her career in a different space. She initially researched albatrosses on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean known as Midway Atoll.

"I started my science career as a bird geek. When I was at Midway Atoll, the plastics issue really hit home for me. I saw first-hand dead birds with all sorts of things in their stomachs – from cigarette lighters to toothbrushes, from bottle caps to shards of plastic. It was then that I knew that I could make a difference.”

Together we’re ending plastic pollution

We've outlined how plastic pollution is a big issue globally. However, Denise finds comfort in the role she has in fixing the problem. She also appreciates that she is not alone in this fight.

“The plastic pollution issue resonates with people. I see the engagement, the interest, and the immediate application for what we’re developing, for what we’re doing," she said.

"Countries around the world want to apply these approaches to help manage their waste issues. Real change is happening right now, and there’s more to come. I feel privileged and super excited to be part of that."

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