How does a river transport litter?

First findings

Based on observations and our first test runs, we can get some clues on how a river transports litter. Three basic elements must be considered:

  1. The river
  2. The weather
  3. The litter

1 The river

The Meuse is a river that is completely determined by meteorological events in its catchment area. It starts in the north-east of France, flows through Belgium and the Netherlands.



It’s throughput is quite fluctuating through the seasons as the graph below shows:

debiet Eijsden 1990-2000 (m3/s)

debiet Eijsden 1990-2000 (m3/s)

This difference in throughputs implies that there is an intensive interaction with the river banks. Every peak leaves a mark on the bank, washed away whenever a higher peak follows. These lines on the picture below have been deposited during the peaks in the winter periods of the last couple of years.

high water lines on river bank

high water lines on river bank

At high throughputs the river is very turbulent. This turbulence pulls a lot of debris under the surface, only a small part of the debris stays afloat. Trees and bushes on the banks catch these suspended litter fragments, resulting in highly decorated trees after a period of high waters.

tree after high water

tree after high water

2 The weather

Rain and wind contribute to the transport of litter by a river. When it’s raining streets are washed clean, litter is transported through sewer systems and smaller rivers to the Meuse. Small litter passes through purification plants, where only big parts are collected.

Some installations catch the “first flush”, but most of the “clean” rainwater from the streets is directly discharged into a stream.

litter pushed by wind to shore

litter pushed by wind to shore

Wind creates small waves, picking up litter deposited on the banks, mixes it in the top water layer of the river, or pushes very buoyant parts onto another part of the riverbank. This intermittent way of transportation is very typical for the way a river transports litter.

3 The litter

With our first catches and a lot of searching along the riverbanks, we get a first glimpse of the kind of litter transported by the river. There are numerous divisions you can make, but one is most certainly related to the “surface to volume”-ratio. The larger this ratio, the more suspended a piece of litter will be, depending on the turbulence of the river.

A simple demonstration with plastic films with different thickness demonstrates shows clearly the impact of this “specific surface” aspect. The thinner the product is, the longer the product stays in suspension.

When the river is calm, like in summer with no wind, almost all floating (specific mass < 1) products will slowly drift to the surface. As soon as the wind starts to blow or the speeds and turbulence of the water increases, ever more litter will go in suspension at ever greater depths.

Litter with a high specific surface like leaves, packaging films, thin walled plastic products will disappear from the surface. It can be entangled in the flooded parts of the trees or just flow downstream towards the sea.

Litter with a low specific surface, like twigs, treestumps, PET and glass bottles, EPS foam and metal cans stay on the surface, even at the highest throughput rates. They get deposited on downwind banks or get concentrated in calm spots next to the current. Together with the films caught in the trees, they create the very visible litter fraction people get annoyed about in early spring.

big and visible litter with small surface to volume ratio blown ashore

big and visible litter with small surface to volume ratio blown ashore

Another characterisation is between big, small and very small. The next picture shows the results of a mechanical clean-up of the river bank. You can clearly see both the small and the big pieces, all very buoyant and therefore present on the river bank.

a pile of mecanically collected litter, big floating parts very visible

a pile of mechanically collected litter, big floating parts are very visible

small rigid plastic litter pieces between organic material

small rigid plastic litter pieces between organic material

In this pile hardly any flexible plastics are found. The larger film pieces (like bags) hang in trees or might have entered the North Sea, together with all the other small pieces of flexible film products.

These are some of the first qualitative observations we have made. Now our job is to get a more quantitative and statistically valid approach towards all these phenomena we are discovering.

Interesting stuff for students!


One thought on “How does a river transport litter?

  1. “In this pile hardly any flexible plastics are found.”

    I have discovered a lot of plastic bags and similar material buried in sediment. I noticed plastic bags caught up in the roots of trees which had been blown over in a storm. The trees were about thirty years old (dating from just after the creation of the lake in Oost Marland), which shows the problem of river litter and how persistent it is in the environment.

    Being a fluvial system, erosion and deposition are constant features of the river, so plastics are regularly buried and re-exposed, primarily during high water events in the winter. The pile of waste is not representative of a random sample of debris as a number of processes have already worked on seperating the differing wastes. I wonder if stats are available for the quantities and make up of river wastes along the Maas. My photographic evidence shows a wide range of wastes of all descriptions:

    Chemical containers are high profile

    As you can see, sheet plastic is present, but not as dominant as might be expected. I suspect alot of this gets cought up in trees, or buried under sediments.

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