Search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 Reveals Garbage Pollution Problem in the Ocean

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.

Originally published at NRDC Switchboard, written by Leila Monroe.

In the desperate search for clues about the fate of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, information about a global environmental issue has unexpectedly come to light. Multiple times in the past week, search and rescue teams have been disappointed when debris spotted from the air or satellite has turned out to be "ordinary garbage." 

This revelation highlights the fact that so much trash has been dumped or spilled into the world's oceans that they now resemble plastic soup. Like so many environmental problems, the build-up of pollution in the ocean is a gradual catastrophe that doesn't often make headlines. But according to one recent estimate, twenty million tons of plastic waste enters the marine environment every year, accumulating in the five major swirling currents, called gyres, but also referred to as "garbage patches."

Decades of coastal cleanup and research have revealed that single use plastic – like plastic bottles, bags and wrappers – are among the items most frequently found polluting the oceans. And as described by Jason Bittel, in OnEarth, this pollution isn't just a blight in our waters and to economies that depend on healthy clean ocean: It's also a serious threat to marine life.  Sea turtles are known to eat and choke on plastic bags, mistaking them for jelly fish. Albatross feed colorful plastic pieces to their young causing them to starve to death, as documented by Chris Jordan in his tragic short film "Midway."

Plastic pollution in the ocean won't biodegrade for centuries, if ever. Instead, it breaks down into fragments that can attract cancer-causing pollutants like PCBs and the pesticide DDT.  A recent study showsthat when fish eat these toxic-laden pieces of plastics, the chemicals are transmitted from their stomach to their bodies, which has frightening implications all the way up the food chain and also poses a potential health risk for people.

Once plastic gets into the environment, it is extremely difficult and expensive to remove. The best solutions to the problem of marine plastic pollution are the ones that can help us stop it from reaching the ocean in the first place:

  • We should require producers of single-use plastics to take more responsibility for their products, innovating new reusable options and ensuring that their products are recyclable and can actually be recycled where they are sold.
  • Laws to ban or place a fees on single-use plastic items can help to address the increasing volume of plastics ending up in the ocean.  Throughout the U.S. and around the world in places like Australia, China, Ireland, Italy, Rwanda, Philippines, and Wales, laws have been enacted to tax or control single-use plastics.
  • Individual consumers can reduce the amount of packaging they consume, choose reusable options, recyclable, recycled content, or compostable packaging.
  • Government, business, and institutional vendors should also choose reusable, renewable, recycled-content, and recyclable alternatives whenever possible.

To tackle the environmental tragedy caused by the massive-scale use and discard of plastic waste, we must go to the heart of the problem. We must reduce the amount of waste we produce – starting with single-use disposable plastics – and we need help from companies in both preventing this pollution and cleaning it up. As with any tragedy, we must identify what has gone wrong to turn our oceans into a garbage dump, and we must ask those who are responsible to make things right. Learn more about NRDC’s work to help solve this problem, here.

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