Orange ‘drift cards’ track how our trash travels in the ocean

Like a ‘message in a bottle’ they deliver key information — and you play a role in the research

Oceanographers from Palm Beach Atlantic University are tracking how marine debris and litter travel through the ocean once it enters the sea.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – On a sunny Tuesday morning, about a mile off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, two women scatter hundreds of orange cards right into the ocean.

But this isn’t trash. It’s research.

“That is actually what we’re trying to understand, the story of trash and how it travels,” said Angela Witmer, a professor of oceanography at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

She and her team are doing crucial work, tracking how marine debris and litter travel through the ocean once it enters the sea.

“If you drop something overboard while you’re out boating, how fast do those materials move to the shoreline?” Witmer said.

Instead of dumping harmful plastics, the team uses drift cards specifically designed for the experiment.

“It’s a biodegradable piece of marine plywood that has been sealed and will float along with the currents to give us information,” she explained. “So it’s like a message in a bottle — A modern-day version.”

That message in a bottle will eventually wash up on one of our beaches. If you find one, researchers want you to contact them using the number printed on the card. It’s important to note when and where you found it.

Every card has a specific ID number, vital information that you can also text or email to the research team. The important thing is that you do it immediately.

This is what the drift cards that track the path of ocean trash look like. (WPLG)

“Our interest is trying to understand where these cards are moving,” Witmer said. “Does it move up? Are we trashing Cape Canaveral or are we trashing our own beaches?”

Mapping where ocean trash is coming from can also help find solutions to mitigate it.

It’s urgent data as the planet is in the grips of a growing pollution crisis.

Right now the world dumps 17.6 billion pounds of plastic into the ocean every year.

On this day, it didn’t take long for us to find some marine debris ourselves.

“So what we pulled out is parts of a lobster trap. A lot of string, a lot of net that organisms can actually get caught on,” Witmer said. “This material does not biodegrade, so it would be in the system for a very long time.”

Large pieces of plastic break down over time, becoming tiny pieces of microplastics that are ingested by marine life — and ultimately ingested by us.

“It actually ends up inside of our own bodies, and when it’s inside of our own bodies, we’re harming ourselves in the long run,” Witmer said.

She hopes her research will wake people up to what we’re doing to our planet, challenging all of us to be kinder to our environment by making more conscious choices and reducing our plastic footprint.

“Do better every day,” she said. “Do something a little different better for the environment. It doesn’t have to be drastic changes because those are hard to make, but if we can just make one little change every day every year- we can improve things.”

A GPS device that was also dropped along with the cards from that day has been recovered on Hollywood beach.

Only 23% of the cards from this latest Fort Lauderdale drop have been recovered so far, which means many are still out there.

Data on recent drops


Palm Beach

99.2% reported back

Total number reported: 248/250

GPS device found and returned

Fort Lauderdale

32.8% reported back

Total number: 82/250

GPS device found and not returned

Key Largo

1.6% reported back

Total Number: 8/500

GPS device found and not returned

March 2021 drift card drop map (Courtesy of Palm Beach Atlantic University)


Palm Beach Drop

69.6% reported back

Total number reported: 174/250 - Expect to find these from Jensen Beach to Fort Pierce

GPS device found and not returned

Fort Lauderdale

26.8% reported back

Total number: 67/250 - Expect to find these from Hollywood Blvd. to Sheridan St. in Hollywood

GPS device in Beach Raker yard in Pompano Beach

Key Largo

0.2% reported back

Total Number: 1/500. Only card reported back found on Broad Key. Expect them from Homestead to Miami Beach, possibly further north.

GPS device lost at sea

September 2021 Fort Lauderdale drift card drop map (Courtesy of Palm Beach Atlantic University)

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.