Five weeks into the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, crews have not been able to locate the plane’s wreckage. What has become clear as the massive search continues is the staggering amount of trash in the Indian Ocean.
Hundreds of large objects have been detected on satellite images used to look for possible debris from the crash. What exactly is this stuff and how did it end up in the ocean?
Large floating objects could include the fiberglass hull of a lost ship, fishing equipment, ocean shipping containers and buoys used by cruise ships. “If you have ever seen an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, there are buoys as big as that,” said Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the advocacy group 5 Gyres, which aims to reduce plastics pollution in the world’s oceans.
The majority of the pollution, however, is smaller than a grain of rice. Over a long period of time, plastics are eventually broken down by sunlight and waves until they become particles that are invisible to the naked eye. These small particles still pose a problem for wildlife and potentially humans. Environmental groups are concerned that pesticides and chemicals latch onto them. Marine animals then ingest the particles, which either kills them or enters our food supply.
The trash found in the Indian Ocean can be attributed to several sources, including shipping lanes and populated areas that dump into the Bay of Bengal, which then winds up in the ocean. Hurricanes and tsunamis also contribute to the pollution. However, Eriksen thinks one of the biggest causes of ocean pollution is our unwitting use of disposable items that take years to break down. “Why do we have to use plastic for a straw that we use for ten minutes?” he wonders.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore on his way back from a sailing race, is the most famous area of ocean trash. At least four more garbage patches have been documented around the world since then, including one in the Indian Ocean. “It’s a nonstop soup of plastic waste from one continent to another,” said Eriksen, who noted that the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is being conducted on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch.
If you’re out there when you’re on the deck, it’s pretty frequent that you’re going to look down and see something,” he said of a prior sailing trip from Perth, Australia to the island of Mauritius. “A small piece of netting, a piece of rope just goes by. Every hour or two, you’ll see something on the horizon. An oil drum, a bucket.”
If something positive can come out of such a terrible tragedy, maybe the light shed on ocean pollution will be the impetus needed to change our behaviors and clean up our oceans for good.