01 Mar 2023
 | 01 Mar 2023

Tidal dynamics limit river plastic transport

Louise D. M. Schreyers, Tim H. M. van Emmerik, Khiet Bui, Khoa Van Le Thi, Bart Vermeulen, Hong-Q. Nguyen, and Martine van der Ploeg

Abstract. Plastic is an emerging pollutant, and the quantities in rivers and oceans are expected to increase. Rivers are assumed to transport land-based plastic into the ocean, and the fluvial and marine transport processes have been relatively well studied to date. However, the processes controlling the transport in tidal rivers and estuaries, the interface between fluvial and marine systems, remain largely unresolved. For this reason, current estimates of riverine plastic pollution and export into the ocean remain highly uncertain. Hydrodynamics in tidal rivers and estuaries are influenced by tides and freshwater discharge. As a consequence, flow velocity direction and magnitude can change diurnally. In turn, this impacts the transport dynamics of solutes and pollutants, including plastics. Plastic transport dynamics in tidal rivers and estuaries remain understudied, yet the available observations suggest that plastics can be retained here for long time periods, especially during periods of low net discharge. Additional factors such as riparian vegetation and riverbank characteristics, in combination with bidirectional flows and varying water levels, can lead to even higher likelihood of long-term retention. Here, we provide a first observation-based estimate of net plastic transport on a daily time scale in tidal rivers. For this purpose, we developed a simple Eulerian approach using sub-hourly observations of plastic transport and discharge during full tidal cycles. We applied our method to the highly polluted Saigon river, Vietnam, throughout six full tidal cycles in May 2022. We show that the net plastic transport is about 27–32 % of the total plastic transport. We found that plastic transport and river discharge are positively and significantly correlated (Pearson's r = 0.87, R2 = 0.75). The net transport of plastic is higher than the net discharge (27–32 % and 18 %, respectively), suggesting that plastic transport is governed by other factors than water flow. Such factors include wind, varying plastic concentrations in the water, and entrapment of plastics downstream of the measurement site. The plastic net transport rates alternate between positive (seaward) net transport and negative (landward) net transport, as a result of the diurnal inequality in the tidal cycles. We found that soft and neutrally buoyant items had considerably lower net transport rates than rigid and highly buoyant items (11–17 % vs 31–39 %), suggesting the retention time strongly depends on item characteristics. Our results demonstrate the crucial role of tidal dynamics and bidirectional flows in net plastic transport. With this paper we emphasize the importance of understanding fundamental transport dynamics in tidal rivers and estuaries to ultimately reduce the uncertainties of plastic emission estimates into the ocean.

Louise D. M. Schreyers et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1495', Hubert H.G. Savenije, 05 Apr 2023
  • AC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1495', Louise Schreyers, 24 May 2023
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-1495', Anonymous Referee #2, 28 Jul 2023

Louise D. M. Schreyers et al.

Louise D. M. Schreyers et al.


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Short summary
River plastic emissions into the ocean are of global concern, but the transfer dynamics between freshwater and the marine environment remain poorly understood. We developed a simple Eulerian approach to estimate the net and total plastic transport in tidal rivers. Applied to the Saigon river, Vietnam, we found that net plastic transport amounted to only a third of total transport, highlighting the need to better understand and integrate tidal dynamics in plastic transport and emissions models.