• 09.16.13

Use This Rubber Ducky To Track Out Where Our Ocean Plastic Is Going

This interactive map tracks how ocean currents spread debris from coast to coast, whether that’s the refuse from our supermarket trips or Fukushima’s radioactive leaks.

Use This Rubber Ducky To Track Out Where Our Ocean Plastic Is Going
[Image: Rubber Ducky via Shutterstock]

If you wonder what happens to the plastic bags you don’t compulsively hoard in your own home (if you’re one of those types), head to the sea. Some 4.7 million tons of plastic get dumped in the ocean a year, as well as countless other pieces of trash that ends up littering our beaches.


But where those bits of plastic end up isn’t a total mystery. Adrift, a project from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science’s Dr. Eric van Sebille and David Fuchs, is a map that allows you to simulate plastic dissemination on the global currents. Set your rubber ducky icon near Indonesia, and in a decade the concentration of plastic pollution has traveled across the Pacific Ocean to hover closer to the California coast. (Screenshot below.)

As the site explains, ocean currents move in three dimensions, which can be difficult to predict and track. But in the late 1970s, scientists started measuring changes in currents by keeping tabs on a series of drifting buoys that communicate with research centers regularly.

“These buoys float with the currents just like plastics except–like Twitter from the sea–they send a short message to scientists every six hours about where they are and the conditions in that location,” van Sebille writes. Data from the buoys helped inform statistical models of ocean surface pathways, which in turn helps us propel the duck.

But ocean pathways don’t just pass along friendly bath companions. Adrift also serves as a model for the spread of Fukushima’s leaking radioactive waste. Like an angry swarm of bees, Adrift’s simulation shows radioactive leakage rushing the California coast in a couple of years. “The plume of radioactive material, however, will not only stay at the surface,” the site notes. Researchers predict that some of that waste will sink, but that the fastest surface currents will ferry waste over to the United States.

While we’re waiting on that (and praying for the Fukushima ice wall), you can play around with other plastic scenarios on the site or download the open-source transit matrix used to calculate the flow.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.