A container load of printer cartridges that fell from a cargo ship in 2014 helps scientists map how currents move pollution across the oceans.
Thousands of plastic Hewlett-Packard inkjet cartridges fell in an accident in 2014 in the North Atlantic Ocean east of New York and were swept thousands of miles around the world.
A team of scientists led by the University of Plymouth sent a social media call shortly after news of the spill was out, asking a Facebook group of beachcombers to search for the plastic cartridges.
Researchers have now revealed the results of the four-year survey, in which respondents found 1,467 devices on the coast of Western Europe, the Canary Islands, Bermuda, Florida and even Northern Norway.
The distribution, according to researchers, reflected major ocean surface currents, some of which were carried by the Azores and Canary currents around the North Atlantic Gyre, and others to the north with the North Atlantic and Norwegian currents.
The data also showed that the cartridges had spread more than 4,000 miles with an average deviation of 10 centimeters per second – or about 0.2 miles per hour.
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. After a four-year survey, respondents discovered 1,467 devices on the coast of Western Europe, the Canary Islands, Bermuda and Florida, along with in Northern Norway.
Tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans every day and as of 2020 there were some 5.25 trillion pieces of waste of which 269,000 tons floated on the surface alone.
And much of the waste travels long distances on the ocean waves.
While most of the plastic comes from discarded waste, some is the result of lost containers at sea.
According to the new study, published in the journal Environmental pollutionHundreds of containers with cargo are lost at sea every year.
The data also showed that the cartridges had spread more than 4,000 miles in less than four years with an average deviation of 10 centimeters per second, which is alarming as the devices disintegrated into microplastics.
“Most container losses are either undocumented or not systematically reported because there is currently no obligation to report lost cargo, unless of a dangerous nature,” the study said.
However, the use of an average estimated annual loss of 568 containers over the past decade, coupled with an average container capacity of 26.5 tons and a plastic cargo content of 70%, suggests that up to 10,500 tons of plastic marine litter per year derived from this route. ‘
Andrew Turner of the University of Plymouth, who led the study, used a Facebook group to track down the path of the lost inkjet cartridges.
The image shows the areas around West England where beachcombers found the cartridges
After the sightings came in, the team set to work mapping the 1,467 that were spotted.
The map developed by the team shows six currents that spilled cartridges from the original location.
The North Atlantic Current has taken most of the objects and dropped them along the Western European coast.
“In regions affected by the North Atlantic Current, pattern accumulation is markedly greater on the west and south coasts in accordance with the general circulation described above,” the study said.
“This effect is also evident in the distribution of cartridges collected from the UK and Ireland and, on a finer scale, from South West England.”
The Norwegian current plunged into the North Atlantic Ocean to bring some as far north as the top of Norway.
Microscopic images of different components of different HP cartridges. The study investigated how quickly the plastic breaks down in water. The once-sturdy devices had been reduced to chalky brittle objects after their time lost at sea
Also in the Atlantic Ocean flows the Azores Current which divided devices along the Canary Islands and carried part in the Gulf Stream to land in Florida and Bermuda.
The data from the first pattern observations are also consistent with these circulation patterns, with the earliest reports being oceanographically (ie, along the surface flow paths) closest to the spill (Azores) and the latest earliest observations typically recorded at the greatest distances; namely Florida, Bermuda and Northern Norway, ”researchers wrote.
The study also investigated how quickly the plastic breaks down in water.
The once solid devices had been reduced to chalky brittle objects after their time lost at sea, meaning microplastics have fallen into the oceans.
And an even closer examination showed that the cartridges released microplastic contamination containing metals such as iron, copper and titanium.
Printer cartridges are not just plastic waste, the authors note, they are also electronic waste because they contain chips. The impact of electronic waste on marine ecosystems is currently unknown.
While the team was able to figure out the paths of the inkjet cartridges, they note that once a spill happens, there’s no way to clean it up completely.
URBAN FLOOD FLUSHES MICROPLASTICS INTO THE OCEANS FASTER THAN THOUGHT
Urban flooding is causing microplastics to enter our oceans even faster than previously thought, according to scientists looking at pollution in rivers.
Greater Manchester waterways are now so heavily contaminated by microplastics that particles are found in every sample, even in the smallest streams.
This pollution is a major contributor to ocean pollution, researchers discovered as part of the first detailed river basin-wide study anywhere in the world.
This waste – including microbeads and microfibers – is toxic to ecosystems.
Scientists tested 40 sites in Manchester and found that every waterway contained these tiny poisonous particles.
Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic waste, including microbeads, microfibers and plastic fragments.
They have long been known to enter river systems from multiple sources, including industrial wastewater, stormwater runoffs, and domestic wastewater.
While about 90 percent of microplastic pollution in the oceans is believed to come from land, not much is known about their movements.
Most of the rivers surveyed contain about 517,000 plastic particles per square meter, according to researchers at the University of Manchester who conducted the detailed study.
After a period of major flooding, the researchers re-sampled at all locations.
They found that contamination levels had dropped in most of them and that the flooding had removed about 70 percent of the microplastics stored on the riverbeds.
This shows that flooding can transfer large amounts of microplastics from the urban river to the oceans.