Using GPS and satellite tags inside plastic bottles, scientists have found that plastic pollution can travel thousands of miles in just a few months. Their project, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, tracked one bottle over 1,768 miles in 94 days.
The findings “demonstrate 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,” Emily Duncan, a marine scientist at the University of Exeter and lead author of the new study, said in a statement.
Duncan and her colleagues released 25 500-milliliter bottles equipped with GPS and satellite tags into the Ganges River — the second largest river contributing to ocean plastic pollution, after the Yangtze River — and the Bay of Bengal. The project was done in collaboration with the National Geographic Society’s Sea to Source initiative.
Bottles sent down the Ganges moved more slowly and in stages, getting caught occasionally on their way downstream. Bottles released into the ocean, however, traveled farther distances, carried first on coastal currents before being dispersed more widely.
The scientists have made their pollution-tracking technology open source, meaning it “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.”