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Plastic may take unexpected routes to marine garbage patches

Researchers redraw ocean boundaries to help identify polluters

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8:30am, September 5, 2014
ocean plastic

RUBBISH TRAIL  Plastic tossed into the ocean breaks down into tiny particles that accumulate in large ocean swirls. New research on the connections between the world's oceans finds that the plastic litter in a patch may have come from a distant sea.

Math may help scientists figure out who is responsible for massive tracts of trash in the oceans — and the culprits may not be the obvious suspects.

Using mathematical simulations of ocean currents, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney show that plastic garbage may take circuitous cruises before joining patches of floating debris in distant oceans. The study, published September 2 in Chaos, bucks a common assumption that the coasts closest to the masses of litter are responsible for the plastic, which can be deadly to sea life. The new calculations redefine ocean borders and offer a way to help catch the countries dumping the most debris.

“This is an important step if you want to get to a point where we can say, ‘The U.S. is responsible for X percent’ ” of the pollution, says oceanographer Erik van Sebille, one of the study’s coauthors.

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