Waterborne Plastics Assessment and Collection Technologies

With support from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), NREL is collecting data on waterborne plastics debris as part of the Waterborne Plastics Assessment and Collection Technologies (WaterPACT) project.

For more information about the project, browse the WaterPACT fact sheet.

Per capita, the United States produces more plastic waste than any other country on Earth, and the U.S. is a leading contributor to plastics debris in the ocean. Without significant intervention, experts predict that, by 2040, global waste production will double, plastic leakage—from manufacturing, usage, and waste management and recycling pathways—will triple, and the total waste in the ocean will quadruple.

Waterborne plastics debris could significantly affect the health and wellbeing of Americans, their communities, and the ecosystems they depend upon. There is a clear opportunity for water power technologies to measure and even remove those plastics and potentially reintroduce them into plastics supply chains.  

A graphic with icons of sources of debris in waterways (mountains, cars, landfill, factory, houses, littering), sizes (nano, micro, meso, macro) and how they fit into the circular economy through renewable power, sensing, collection, conversion, and redesign, providing economic, carbon, energy, environmental, social, and health valuation outputs.
Plastic debris across a range of sizes, colors, shapes, and chemistries arrive in U.S. waterways from a variety of industrial, commercial, transportation, and residential sources. This project aims to develop pathways to recover that pollution as a resource. Graphic by Elizabeth Stone, NREL

NREL is well positioned to further study waterborne plastics pollution for several reasons:

  • Sources of waterborne plastics debris are across all energy sectors, including industry, commerce, transportation, and residential sectors.
  • Reclaiming plastic debris also reclaims the money, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions invested in the production of plastic materials.
  • Researchers at DOE’s national laboratories have the expertise, experience, and existing technological capabilities to address this problem.

Advances in renewable energy researchincluding hydrokinetic or solarsupported by DOE could power in-water technology solutions for waterborne plastics. A federal effort is well suited to help state and local governments as well as nongovernmental organizations address a challenge of this scale. For these reasons, DOE launched the Waterborne Plastics Assessment and Collection Technologies project (also known as WaterPACT) in 2020, in which project partners work to characterize and remove waterborne plastics debris in the United States.

With support from DOE, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are completing a nationwide field measurement campaign and conducting predictions to amass accessible, actionable, and consistent data on waterborne plastics debris. The national labs will build on this information to foster technology development in plastics debris measurement, collection, conversion (recycling or upcycling), and product redesign.

Vision and Mission

The WaterPACT project’s long-term vision is to deliver a suite of renewable-energy-powered technologies to sense, collect, and convert waterborne plastics and redesign plastics circularity to avoid waterways.

The project team will:

  • Create a national-scale, broad-spectrum characterization of U.S. waterborne plastics properties, trends, values, and social contexts in partnership with partner agencies
  • Develop a set of integrated modeling tools to predict pathways of plastics in U.S. waterways and coastal seas and assess the impacts of plastic pollution in marine environment and human health
  • Develop targeted renewably-powered technologies to reclaim and remediate waterborne plastics pollution via renewable power in partnership with the myriad organizations operating in this space.

To achieve this vision, the WaterPACT team will pursue four mission aims. It aims to:

  • Characterize, quantify, model, and estimate the value of the range of U.S. waterborne plastics and leachates (chemicals from plastics that leach into water) 
  • Develop models, analyses, and technologies to reclaim and remediate waterborne plastics debris
  • Leverage investments from DOE’s Water Power Technologies Office and Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office in distributed energy generation, blue economy markets, materials characterization, recycling/upcycling, modeling, and data science to support technology developers
  • Identify, understand, and reduce environmental and health stressors disproportionally impacting underserved communities.


Phase 1 (Fiscal Years 2022–2024): Assessment

Phase 1 includes gathering foundational field and laboratory measurements, modeling the flow of plastics, estimating the value of their recovery, and sharing data broadly.

Two people put samples in containers on a boat on the left and on the right is an aerial photo of a river mouth overlain with colored lines.

WaterPACT researchers from Louisiana State University collect field samples from the Mississippi River Basin (left). The basin is downstream of a major urban center and upstream of the river mouth to the Gulf of Mexico. A satellite image of the Delaware Watershed (right) is overlain with computational model results of plastic particulates carried downstream to the Delaware Bay. Photos by Ben Maurer, NREL; image from Taiping Wang, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Phase 2 (Fiscal Years 2025–2027): Collection

Phase 2 is organized into a portfolio of four renewable energy R&D pillars—sensing, collection, conversion, and redesign—with an emphasis on returning quantified values to recycled polymer supply chains and avoided costs to downstream communities.

Phase 3 (Fiscal Year 2028 and Beyond): Industry-Led Research and Development

Phase 3 involves the transfer of portfolio funding and management to a consortium of stakeholders across plastics production, consumer goods, interested state and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, renewable energy technology developers, and sensing, collection, conversion, and redesign technology developers.

Measuring Success

The WaterPACT team aims to achieve the following long-term goals:

  • Achieve 100% renewable-energy-powered technology solutions for sensing and collecting plastics pollution in U.S. waterways
  • Remove over 50% of suspended and floating waterborne plastics debris in U.S. waterways by 2040
  • Ensure more than 40% of the associated greenhouse gas emissions reductions, water quality improvements, and reductions in plastics-debris-related environmental and health stressors directly benefit underserved communities.

Scope and Partners

Experts at NREL are leading the WaterPACT project in collaboration with researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE™) consortium, and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory.

Critical Phase 1 project partners include U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 3, Louisiana State University, University of California Riverside, Oregon State University, Portland State University, and the Moore Institute.


Generation of Macro- and Microplastic Databases by High-Throughput FTIR Analysis With Microplate Readers, Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry (2024)

Riverine Plastic Pollution: Field Sampling Protocol and Implementation in U.S. Rivers, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Technical Report (2023)

Riverine Plastic Pollution: Sampling and Analysis Methods, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Technical Report (2022)


Ben Maurer

Project Principle Investigator and Sustainable Oceans Lead