News Release 

Satellite-tagged bottles show promise for tracking plastic litter through rivers

Researchers successfully track 'bottle tags' through Ganges River system into Bay of Bengal

PLOS

Research News

A new study demonstrates the potential for plastic bottles tagged with tracking devices to deepen our understanding of how plastic pollution moves through rivers. Emily Duncan of the University of Exeter, U.K., and colleagues present this research in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on Dec 2, 2020.

Plastic pollution threatens natural ecosystems and human health worldwide. Previous research suggests that rivers transport up to 80 percent of the plastic pollution found in oceans. However, while ocean modeling and tracking technology have revealed detailed insights into how plastic litter moves and accumulates within oceans, river transport of plastic pollution remains poorly understood.

To help address this knowledge gap, Duncan and colleagues developed a new, low-cost, open-source tracking method that uses reclaimed 500 mL plastic bottles to house custom-designed electronics, allowing the bottles to be tracked via GPS cellular networks and satellite technology. These "bottle tags" mimic plastic beverage bottles, in the hopes that they realistically replicate the path of plastic pollution down a river.

As part of the National Geographic Sea to Source Ganges Expedition, the researchers released 25 bottle tags at various sites along the Ganges River. They successfully tracked several of them through the river and into the Bay of Bengal. They also released three bottles directly into the Bay of Bengal to mimic paths followed by litter once it reaches the sea. The farthest distance traveled by any of the bottles was 2,845 kilometers, which took 94 days.

This study demonstrates that future research could use bottle tags to significantly boost understanding of plastic litter's movement through rivers and into oceans. These devices could reveal new insights into areas where plastic litter is likely to accumulate and periods when large amounts of plastic pollution are moving through the waterways.

The authors also highlight the potential for bottle tags to engage the public--such as by enabling people to follow the bottles' journeys for themselves--potentially boosting awareness, discouraging littering, and informing changes to pollution policy.

The authors add: "Our 'message in a bottle' tags show how far and how fast plastic pollution can move. 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."

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Peer reviewed; Experimental study; People

Citation: Duncan EM, Davies A, Brooks A, Chowdhury GW, Godley BJ, Jambeck J, et al. (2020) Message in a bottle: Open source technology to track the movement of plastic pollution. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0242459. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242459

Funding: This study was conducted as part of the Sea to Source: Ganges Expedition run and funded by the National Geographic Society which played a role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, and preparation of the manuscript as well supporting EMD, AD, GWC, JJ, IN, AB, SEN, HK, TM. Arribada contracted Icoteq Ltd as consultants to cover authors CR contribution. CR did contribute to the design and building of the tracking equipment and preparation of methods section in the manuscript but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish. INDICIT II (11.0661/2018/794561/SUB/ENV.C2), European Commission provided support in the form of salaries for authors EMD & SEN, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Shuttleworth Foundation provided support in the form of salaries for authors AD but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Department of Fisheries (DoF) and Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI), Chandpur, Bangladesh provided support in the form of salaries for authors GWC, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The University of Exeter Multidisciplinary Plastics Research Hub (ExeMPLaR) 685 [EPSRC EP/S025529/1] provided support in the form of salaries for authors SEN and BJG, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the 'author contributions' section.

Competing Interests: The author CR is employed by a commercial company: Icoteq Ltd, who were hired as subcontractors to develop elements of the hardware used in this project. All hardware and software developed by Icoteq Ltd is licenced under GPLv3 & CERN 1.2, both open source licensing agreements. This does not alter our adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0242459

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