Environment

Tagged bottles reveal the path of plastic through the ocean

Tagged bottles reveal the path...
Lead author of the study Emily Duncan releases a tagged bottle into the Ganges river
Lead author of the study Emily Duncan releases a tagged bottle into the Ganges river
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Lead author of the study Emily Duncan releases a tagged bottle into the Ganges river
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Lead author of the study Emily Duncan releases a tagged bottle into the Ganges river
A tagged plastic bottle moves through the water
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A tagged plastic bottle moves through the water
Tagged bottles ahead of their release
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Tagged bottles ahead of their release
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The more we know about the problem of plastic pollution, the better we’ll be able to intervene and clean up, or even prevent, the mess. That includes understanding the way it moves through the marine environment, and a new study has shed further light on this process through the use of tagged plastic bottles. The bottles were dropped in the Ganges river and some ended up thousands of kilometers away.

While the plastic building up in the ocean gets a lot of the attention, studies have shown that millions of metric tons of it actually comes via the world’s river systems. As part of National Geographic's Source to Sea project, scientists at the University of Exeter set trace this path through the waterways and into the ocean, by tagging plastic bottles much like biologists might tag wildlife.

GPS and satellite tags were placed in 25 500-ml (17-oz) bottles, with their buoyancy and shape designed to emulate the movement of regular plastic bottles. These were then released into the Ganges river and the Bay of Bengal, with the researchers using these plastic litter tags to gain an idea of how a discarded plastic bottle might move through the environment.

The tagged bottles were successfully tracked through the Ganges river system and the Bay of Bengal that it feeds into, and far beyond. Some occasionally got stuck on their way downstream, while the bottles at sea were found to cover larger distances with the help of ocean currents. The maximum distance that one of the tagged bottles was found to have traveled was 2,845 km (1,770 mi) in 94 days.

"Our 'message in a bottle' tags show how far and how fast plastic pollution can move," says lead author Dr Emily Duncan. "It demonstrates that this is a truly global issue, as a piece of plastic dropped in a river or ocean could soon wash up on the other side of the world."

The scientists hope this approach can become an educational tool to raise awareness about plastic waste, both in schools and for scientists working to tackle the environmental issue.

"This could be used to teach about plastic pollution in schools, with children able to see where their bottle goes,” says Duncan. ”Data from these tags could feed into global models to give us a clearer picture of how plastic moves across the ocean and where it ends up."

The research was published in the journal PLOS One.

Source: University of Exeter

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4 comments
4 comments
buzzclick
Plastic is an incredibly useful material, but there's too much of it. Much of the solution to this problem is replacing it with materials that are equally or more impacting to the environment by shifting it to another less-obvious, more attractive place in our lives. The answer isn't so much about the elimination of plastic bags and straws, but more about educating/encouraging people to be conscious about their daily habits, especially in developing countries. It doesn't just disappear down the river never to be seen again. It accumulates. It's becoming an unavoidable problem that does harm to our life-giving oceans. If we continue to assume that the Earth can handle all the impacts of our deleterious habits we're in trouble.
akarp
The solution is simply to spend energy and resources to clean it.

We don't tell people not to stop living, stop expanding...we build street sweepers and garbage trucks to clean the streets.

Its time to build ships to clean the ocean.
alan c
Research has shown that 38.7% of all plastic discarded by local schoolchildren ends up in my front garden.
ClaudioB
@akarp
You seem not to grasp the sheer amount of plastic that is being dumped or not properly discarded...
You teach kids where to poop, so that the nappy is no longer necessary after a while, you don't just keep wearing it through your whole life, just bigger size, do you?
Teach people to use less and less plastic and to dispose of properly, the solution is that, period