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‘Plastic soup’: Ocean trash confuses search for missing plane

The recent headlines around the missing Malaysia Airlines jet caught my eye and not necessarily for the mystery of locating the plane, but for the ocean debris that has been throwing off search crews for weeks.

First, Chinese and French satellites spotted what they thought was plane debris in the Indian Ocean. It turns out that was just sea trash.

Then, an oil slick is spotted near where crews picked up sounds thought to be from the black boxes. They said: “the oil slick might be from the jet.”

Seattle Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been tracking the trash floating in our oceans for 40 years. Ever since 80,000 Nike shoes spilled from a container in 1990, he tracked the shoes’ path in the ocean and a career was born.

“Containers, aircraft parts, parts of rockets, all kinds of how should I say, ‘garbage,’ messages in bottles, floating human remains, I could go on and on,” he said. “If you and I sat down and had a beer I could probably run this list easily to a thousand.”

You could say our ocean is like a “plastic soup” or a toilet that keeps swirling but never quite flushes. The fish we eat feeds on what’s in our oceans. Ebbesmeyer said you could go fishing and easily find a fish with plastic bits in its stomach.

The trash is everywhere, but due to currents it tends to congregate into giant garbage patches.

“There are eight garbage patches on the planet and they total an area about the size of the United States. It’s really impossible to clean them up. We don’t have the resources, even if you turned to all the military, all the Navies of the world onto the problem – they wouldn’t be able to suck it up. The whole ocean is infected,” Ebbesmeyer said.

Humans are, of course, dependent on the ocean as a life source. Ebbesmeyer worries we’re trashing the ocean – literally – faster than science can figure out a way to clean it up. The problem is, whose problem is it when every nation shares the ocean?

“It’s like if we all owned a pasture and had our cows out there. Who’s going to take care of the pasture? The problem of the commons has always been with us. It’s not being addressed very well. People just throw garbage out and assume that it will disappear. Well, it does disappear from sight but it goes to somebody else’s back yard so it’s a very, very difficult question and we need to work very hard as a community to address it,” Ebbesmeyer said.

There is something we can all work on until scientists figure out a way to clean up the garbage patches floating in the ocean. Ebbesmeyer said we can all recycle better and be careful about even the smallest pieces of trash like cigarette butts that contain thousands of plastic fibers that will never biodegrade.

“We need about 100 environmental scientists for every one that is working right now,” Ebbesmeyer said. “We’re so understaffed to try to understand what’s going on around us that the problems are literally outrunning us as if we’re trying to run after a train that’s gaining speed so fast we don’t have a hope of catching it.”

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