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Needle in a Landfill
Searching for debris from the missing Flight MH370 reveals just how much trash is mucking up the world’s oceans.

For over three weeks, the world has been searching for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, with no physical sign of the plane or its 239 passengers anywhere. But what search parties have found, over and over again, is a lot of trash floating in some very remote corners of the ocean.

Almost immediately after the plane went missing on March 8, authorities spotted two unrelated oil slicks in the South China Sea, and since then, flotsam has repeatedly led investigators astray. Over the weekend, the search area, now in the Indian Ocean, shifted 700 miles in order to inspect a new patch of debris, but that turned out to be discarded fishing gear. So while the world waits for some trace of the lost jetliner, another disheartening subplot has been emerging from the narrative—our oceans are full of all kinds of crap.

Big crap. Little crap. Microscopic crap.

You’ve no doubt heard of the Great Pacific garbage patch, that whirling, swirling carpet of refuse often described as being the size of Texas. Well, guess what? The Indian Ocean has one of those bad boys, too. In fact, there are five major marine collections of plastic and debris—one for every one of the five ocean’s main gyres. And thanks to the anti-ocean pollution organization, 5 Gyres, you can watch how the trash patches have grown with time:

And it's only getting worse. As Leila Monroe, an attorney for NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), points out, "the build-up of pollution in the ocean is a gradual catastrophe that doesn’t often make headlines." And yet recent estimates suggest 20 million more tons of garbage enter the oceans every year. So if the plane did crash in the sea, its debris could already be traveling among the swiftly-moving contents of the Indian Ocean gyre. Which would mean we'd be looking for some very specific pieces of junk in a junkyard.

The good news for the search team, however, is that most of our litter that’s floating on the sea surface is not the size of an airplane wing. Not even close. Years and decades of riding those salty waves breaks down most debris, reducing it to chunks closer to the size of your pinkie nail. But as we saw with Monday’s red herring, large pieces of fishing equipment, tires, and other human waste drifting at sea are all too common.

OK, so the oceans are full of our garbage; everyone who’s ever seen photos of seabirds choking on bottle caps … or sea turtles mistaking grocery bags for jellyfish … or who’s been to the Jersey Shore knows that. But those suspicious oil slicks found stretching out for up to 9 miles in the middle of the ocean? What’s up with that?

The most common guess would be spillage from the oil and gas industry like those that happened on Lake Michigan and Galveston Bay last week. But oil spills by tanker or pipeline actually make up a relatively small percentage of the oil entering our oceans each year. Natural fissures on the seafloor contribute as much as 40 percent of the oil thought to infiltrate oceans worldwide.

Analysis from the slicks determined that ships most likely discharged the oil. Experts say even a small spill, just tens of gallons, would be enough to create a thin sheen across miles of ocean surface. And let’s not forget continental runoff. Along with pesticides and dead-zone-causing fertilizers, oil from improper disposal and dirty driveways and roads gets washed into waterways when it rains.

The world may never know the fate of Flight MH370. Even now, rescue crews are scouring the ocean for other signs that might help unravel the mystery. But the trash and pollution we have found tells another sad tale: The world’s oceans are in a deplorable state. And the evidence is in plain sight.

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image of Jason Bittel
OnEarth news blogger Jason Bittel contributes to Slate and serves up science for picky eaters on his website, Bittel Me This. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two tiny wolves. (Note: wolves may be Pomeranians.) MORE STORIES ➔