It has been almost a month into the international search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and there is still yet a clue to be found. A lack of information and poor weather have both posed significant setbacks for air and sea search crews; however, it has been the ubiquity of garbage in the Indian Ocean that has stood out as one of the greatest time-wasting distractions in the search. As Conservation International senior scientist M. Sanjavan told CNN, “It isn’t like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among billions floating in the ocean.”

The search for any trace of the 240-foot plane has led search crews to the edge of the Indian Ocean Gyre, an oceanic landfill holding Australia, India, and Indonesia’s trash. There are four or more of these gyres in the world’s oceans. They are the calm centres of rotating ocean currents that have become floating patches of garbage. The most famous among them is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which floats between Hawaii and California, and is said to be the size of Texas. In light of the recent search, sea captain Charles Moore, who is credited with discovering the patch in 2003, has insisted that “the ocean is like a plastic soup, bulked up with the croutons of these larger items” that are obscuring the search for the plane.

The larger objects tend to be fishing-related, but it’s not unusual to see shipping containers and their contents floating at sea. No definitive records exist, but it’s believed that of the 100 million shipping containers that traverse the sea annually, anywhere between 700 and 10,000 end up overboard. According to Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, while the majority of them sink, other containers are able to float around for months, buoyed by trapped air or plastic goods contained inside. Many of the large objects that have been retrieved in the search for MH370 are speculated to have been shipping containers, however, they are still only one part of the distractions. Various sources estimate that more than 10 million tonnes of debris washed into the sea following the 2011 tsunami, and much of this debris has become tangled together, forming rafts that attract sea life. Billions of people are currently living in low-lying coastal regions around the world in cities such as Dhaka, Bangladesh. With sea levels expected to rise several feet by 2100, it is likely that garbage in these areas will be flushed out to sea more often than ever before, particularly during storm surges.

Ultimately, as the search for MH370 moves into the southern Indian Ocean, an area with weaker currents but more debris, the world will continue to be reminded that even the most remote stretches of the world’s oceans are littered with garbage.

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