Waterborne plastic tracked over thousands of kilometres

Plastic waste is able to travel thousands of kilometres in just a few months through rivers and oceans, a new study has found.

 A team from the University of Exeter and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) inserted GPS and satellite tags into 500ml bottles and released them into the Ganges river in India.

The maximum distance tracked by one of the bottles was a staggering 2,845km in just 94 days.

“Our ‘message in a bottle’ tags show how far and how fast plastic pollution can move,” said 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.”

In general, bottles in the Ganges moved in stages, occasionally getting stuck on their way downstream.

Bottles at sea covered far greater distances, following coastal currents at first but then dispersing more widely.

The study used 25 500ml bottles with size, shape and buoyancy intended to mimic the movement of any plastic bottle.

Alasdair Davies of ZSL, said: “The hardware inside each plastic bottle is entirely open-source, ensuring that researchers can replicate, modify or enhance the solution we presented to track other plastics or environmental waste.

“Embedding electronics inside plastic bottles also presented a unique opportunity to use both cellular and satellite transmitters, ensuring we could track the movement of each bottle through urban waterways where mobile phone networks were available, switching to satellite connectivity once the bottles reached the open ocean.”

The researchers hope the bottle tags could be a “powerful tool” for education, raising awareness and encouraging behaviour change.

“This could be used to teach about plastic pollution in schools, with children able to see where their bottle goes,” Duncan said.

“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.”

Evidence has shown that growing concern over the proliferation of plastic waste has led to a positive change in public attitudes towards the issue which is pushing large firms to clean up their act.

While harmful to the environment, scientists are finding ways to capture and use plastic waste such as transforming it into jet fuel or aerogels.