Plastic bottles are resilient enough to travel across countries

by Madonna Watts D'Souza

Plastic bottles are resilient enough to travel across countries

December 24, 2020

In a rather genius research method, scientists studied how far plastic travel can travel into the oceans. However, the researchers met with many other obstacles that proved how disastrous plastic is to the environment.​

A lot of us make paper boats and plastic sails to play with during the monsoon. As those boats set sail, we may wave goodbye to them, but how many of us wonder how far our ships will go? You’re not alone, as researchers wonder too. Plastic bottles are a big issue in almost every river in the world. The River Ganga and Bay of Bengal have so much waste polluting them. However, this river received the world’s first one of a kind gift to float in it.

A plastic bottle! No, it’s not the same as other plastic bottles, but this one was fully equipped with electronics and even had a SIM card. You may wonder how the journey must’ve been for this particular bottle, and here it is!

plastic waste

Preparing Electronic Plastic Bottles

Alasdair Davies, the technical specialist at the Zoological Society of London, and Emily Duncan, a conservation scientist at the University of Exeter, took it upon themselves and studied the route of plastic waste in oceans.

They combined two generations of electronic bottles. Their first generation of devices, which were left to sail in the Ganges, had plenty of cell towers to connect to it, so a SIM card was used. In addition to this, researchers wanted to observe how plastic bottles could act once they reach the ocean.

However, one of the researchers’ challenges was to figure out how to make their device behave like a real plastic bottle. Keeping in mind the weight, gravity, and balance of the device to make sure it doesn’t sink, they made a cavity in the bottle so that the trapped air in it would provide buoyancy, leaving the device half above the water’s surface and half below it.

The bottle’s orientation had to be such that the antenna in it points upwards towards the sky.

Davies recalls: “We played a lot in buckets in our back gardens, floating the bottles, testing configurations, getting it just right. The right thickness of the wall the right everything until we derived something that mimicked a bottle. So we threw another bottle in beside it, and they would float in the same orientation.”

Results of the Experiment

The bottles were set free into the rivers, and the results were merely unexpected. And Behold! A set of electronic bottles were released, all with a SIM card, which would connect to the SIM tower and reveal its location. The researchers expected the SIM card to use at the most 100 megabytes of data, but one of the SIM cards mysteriously used 300 megabytes of data.

Davies said, “We were like, ‘How the hell has our bottle used 300 megs’ worth of data?”. After analyzing its location, they saw the bottle somehow in someone’s house. “Then it(the bottle and SIM card) went offline, and then the data started accumulating,” he says.

Those who weren’t lucky either crashed somewhere or, like the case above case had a local rip open and used the SIM card for operating Facebook. The bottles started their journey from the banks of the Ganges in Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal.

Researchers wanted to demonstrate how far plastic can travel in water bodies, but many obstacles came along the bottles’ way. Some lost connection, while some got trapped in fishing nets. However, these obstacles proved to be an advantage for the study. “It gives realistic data of what does happen to plastic,” said Emily Duncan.

Some might be pulled out of the river, and some might get caught in fishing apparatus out there. So our misadventures lead to a realistic idea of what happens.

- Emily Duncan

This provided a real-life explanation of where all plastic can land up. One bottle traveled 1,800 miles in 94 days! Most of them were headed westwards towards India’s East coast and got caught up in mysterious, strong Eddy currents, which answered their questions.

They tended to head westward toward India’s east coast, eventually getting caught up in robust eddy systems. Duncan expressed: “On the map, we saw a kind of spiraling starting to happen. That’s the hint to where we might be finding accumulations of plastic.”

Nicholas Mallos, senior director at the Trash Free Seas Program at the Ocean Conservancy, commented upon the research and said, “Oceanographic models can highlight and provide valuable insight into how plastics likely move in the ocean. But using real-time plastic-tracking tools can help us reveal perhaps previously unknown things.”

Upon studying their location, most of the plastic ended up on shores and banks of the rivers and travelled parallel to the coastline rather than immediately ending up into the ocean. However, no one knows exactly where some of the bottles went missing. This proves how elusive plastic is and although we may know how much of plastic is likely to end up in oceans, we don’t know where exactly does all the plastic end up.

We only know how far bottles travel but what about other wastes? Other seemingly innocent wastes like plastic bags, wrappers, plastic lids, straws, covers, etc. are also some major pollutants for the oceans.


Unanswered Questions

As these new electronic bottles revealed, plastic can flow over hundreds, maybe even thousands of kilometers, through water bodies. This shows that plastic is powerful enough not to get destroyed by the fast-flowing water and will most definitely end up in the oceans.

“In general, one of the gaps we have had is trying to identify how far plastics move once in the environment,” Mallos added. Many researchers will raise the question: where’s the misplaced plastic? Because we have estimated how much is probably going into water bodies. But we have not yet been able to fully calculate where is all that plastic ending up just through the largeness of the ocean. Duncan and her team plan to adapt their technology using tinier plastic pieces to study how far they can end up in the oceans.

Duncan said, “Because the tech moves so fast, and everything gets smaller and lighter so easily, it would be fascinating to end up with something you can stick on the crisp packet or a plastic bag. Something that’s much more lightweight, that won’t affect how it moves, and to be able to track these pieces as well.”

Plastic is one of the sneakiest and most notorious ways to pollute and ruin the environment. “The total amount of plastic we have taken out of the system is much more than what is contained in these tags,” Duncan expresses. “Going back to my experience in sea turtle research, the satellite tracing of these animals has assisted us in answering so many questions. It’s very similar to plastic pollution. We need to understand how plastic moves and where it moves to.”

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