Since vanishing on March 8, authorities across the world have been searching for evidence of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. While a lack of information and bad weather have presented setbacks so far, as the search area narrows a new culprit is emerging — garbage.
“It isn’t like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Conservation International senior scientist M. Sanjayan told CNN. “It’s like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among billions floating in the ocean.”
Vast garbage patches enmeshed in giant ocean gyres have been a subject of dismayed fascination for over a decade. Ocean gyres are large, rotating ocean currents that accumulate floating debris in their calm centers. Charles Moore, a sailor and oceanographer in California, is often credited with discovering an enormous stretch of floating debris in the midst of the North Pacific Gyre in 2003, since deemed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Currents circulating between the west coast of North America and China and Russia’s east coast merge together trash of all varieties — plastic bottles, bags, fishing equipment, debris from fallen shipping containers, and other flotsam.
Across the world in the Indian Ocean Gyre, accumulated garbage is frustrating search efforts for debris from the Boeing 777 that mysteriously disappeared in early March. After more than a week of bad weather delayed efforts to the region hundreds of miles off Australia’s east coast, search teams have not yet been able to confirm plane debris, but they have confirmed something else: even the remotest parts of the ocean are plagued by human detritus.
Denise Hardesty, a research scientist for Australian science agency CSIRO, told the AP that there are between 12,500 and 17,500 pieces of plastic per square mile in waters around Australia.
“It takes 400 or 500 years for lots of types of plastics to completely break down,” Hardesty said. “It just goes into smaller and smaller bits. You even find plastics in plankton — that’s how small it gets.”
With billions of people living near coastlines around the world, human waste inevitably migrates into oceans via waterways or is rushed out during storm events. “The world does use the ocean as its toilet, and then expects that toilet to feed it,” Sanjayan told CNN.
Thousands of shipping containers also go overboard every year as around 100 million of them traverse the seas annually aboard cargo ships. Early on in the search some large items were spotted and thought to be parts of the 240-foot-long missing plane, but it was later determined these were likely parts of shipping containers lost at sea.
According to Greenpeace, about 70 percent of discarded plastic that reaches the ocean actually sinks to the bottom, harming seabed dwellers rather than impacting marine life such as fish, whales and jellyfish that spend more time — and find more food — near the surface.
With sea level rise of several feet expected by 2100 due to climate change’s impact on melting glaciers and polar ice sheets, the thin line between landlocked trash disposal and oceans lined with human-generated waste will become further obscured.
Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the fastest growing cities in the world, is an example of the confluence of developmental impact, environmental degradation and climate change that far exceeds the capacity of the region to effectively confront. “All that waste in countries like that — low-lying, prone to flooding — periodically flushes into the ocean,” Sanjayan told CNN.