Screenshot of a CNN interview with Conservation International senior scientist M. Sanjayan. Sanjayan describes how the search for flight MH370 is made enormously more difficult by the immense quantities of garbage in the world's oceans. Photo: CNN

By Tom Cohen
2 April 2014

(CNN) – Another debris field, another new and so-far futile focus in the search for Flight MH370.

More than three weeks after the Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared, one thing has been made clear: the ocean is full of garbage, literally.

"It isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack," Conservation International senior scientist M. Sanjayan said of the difficulty in finding the Boeing 777 aircraft. "It's like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among billions floating in the ocean."

Environmentalists like Sanjayan have warned for years that human abuse of the planet's largest ecosystem causes major problems for ocean life and people that depend on it.

With the world's eyes now scouring Asian waters for any trace of the plane that was more than 240 feet long and weighed more than 700,000 pounds, the magnitude of the ocean debris problem has become evident.

Two objects floating in the southern Indian Ocean, including one nearly 80 feet long, initially were called the best lead to date when a satellite detected them last week.

So far, though, search planes have yet to find them or any other plane debris, with speculation mounting that the larger item was a shipping container lost at sea. […]

More than a third of the world's 7 billion people live within 60 miles of an ocean coast, and their waste inevitably reaches the water -- either deliberately or indirectly.

Estimates from various sources, including the Japanese government, indicate that more than 10 million tons of debris -- including houses, tires, trees, and appliances -- washed into the sea in the 2011 tsunami.

In addition, discarded plastics -- including countless bags like the kind routinely provided by retail stores and fast food restaurants until a movement in recent years to decrease their use -- form huge, churning garbage fields in the rotating currents of ocean gyres. One in the north Pacific is estimated to be at least 270,000 square miles, or an area larger than Texas.

Sanjayan said the plastic breaks down in the saltwater to form a kind of "plastic soup" that gets ingested by marine life. Millions of sea turtles die from the plastic each year, he said, and one in 10 small bait fish has plastic in its stomach.

That happens in the same waters that provide roughly 15% of the animal protein consumed by people.

"The world does use the ocean as its toilet, and then expects that toilet to feed it," Sanjayan noted. [more]

Plane search hampered by ocean garbage problem



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