Geo-tagged bottles in the Ganges river show how plastic pollution can travel thousands of kilometres in just a few months

Geo-tagged bottles in the Ganges river show how plastic pollution can travel thousands of kilometres in just a few months
25 geo-tagged water bottles were released in the Ganges river and the Bay of Bengal to show how plastic travelsUniversity of Exeter
  • The Ganges river is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
  • A new study using geo-tagged bottles was able to show plastic can cross the Ganges, travel thousands of kilometres, and end up in the ocean within just a few months.
  • The maximum distance tracked was 2,845 kilometres in 94 days.
As India struggles to clean up the Ganges river, researchers hope that their ‘message in a bottle’ approach will help shed light on the impact of plastic pollution on the 2,700 kilometre long water body.

Their new study shows how plastic bottles, equipped with GPS and satellite tags, can travel thousands of kilometres in just a few months. The maximum distance tracked was 2,845 kilometres in 94 days.

Geo-tagged bottles in the Ganges river show how plastic pollution can travel thousands of kilometres in just a few months
One the researchers releases a plastic bottle into the Ganges riverSara Hylton/National Geographic

"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," said Emily Duncan, the lead author of the study published in Public Library of Science ( PLOS) One.
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One of the most polluted rivers in the world
India’s Ganges river provides water to nearly half a billion people, but it is one of the most polluted in the world. Rising from the foothills of the Himalayas and ending in the Bay of Bengal, the polluted river has been linked to the emergence of ‘ superbugs’, waterborne illnesses, and even endangering the Ganges river dolphin.

The study used 25 50-millilitre bottles. The bottles mostly moved downstream in stages, occasionally getting stuck along the way. Three of the bottles were let out directly into the Bay of Bengal. They covered larger distances while following coastal currents and then later dispersing more widely.

Geo-tagged bottles in the Ganges river show how plastic pollution can travel thousands of kilometres in just a few months
Bottle tags ready for releaseHeather Koldewey

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"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,” said Alasdair Davies of the conservation technology organisation Arribada and ZSL.

Previous research suggests that rivers transport up to 80% of the plastic pollution found in oceans. While tracking technology has been proven useful to show more plastic litter moves within oceans, river transport of plastic pollution remains poorly understood, according to the research team.

And, it’s not just plastic bottles that threaten the Ganga. Another recent study published in the Science of the Total Environment, conducted by an international team including researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India, noted that plastic fishing nets are among the biggest threats to the wildlife that inhabits the Ganges river.
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