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‘Tweets’ from the ocean confirm how far plastic waste travels

Australia – No matter where in the world plastic waste enters the sea, it can end up in any of the five ocean basins, new research in Australia shows. Investigators at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, based at the University of New South Wales, concluded that even if the practice stopped today, floating garbage patches would continue to grow for hundreds of years.

The researchers used data from drifting buoys, part of the Global Drifter Program, to determine the movement of surface ocean currents. Hundreds of buoys are released into the ocean every year, and each sends out regular 140-character messages on its location and the ocean conditions it encounters. Research leader Dr Erik van Sebille described this as ‘Twitter from the ocean’.

There are currently five large garbage patches in the subtropical oceans. ‘Our research suggests a smaller sixth garbage patch may form within the Arctic Circle in the Barents Sea, although we don’t expect that to appear for another 50 years,’ Dr van Sebille said.

His team found that plastic waste originating in Australia has made its way into every ocean. They have shown for the first time that giant oceanic eddies, some up to 50 kilometres across, help shift material between garbage patches that may be thousands of kilometres apart in different oceans. ‘This means that garbage from any country can end up in any one of these garbage patches. It tells us that no single country is responsible. Ocean garbage is an international problem that requires an international solution,’ Dr van Sebille commented.

It is known that plastics floating in the oceans, even with a very small particle size, affect ecosystems. Fish and albatross swallow the pieces, while phytoplankton uses floating pellets for buoyancy, floating near the surface where it grows best.

Next, the researchers want to examine what happens to plastics closer to the coast, where most fishing occurs, to determine the effect on the coastal environment.

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