I am writing this in mid-May, nine weeks into a massive international search for a Malaysian airliner that disappeared with 239 people aboard. So far, the search has found nothing. It has, however, turned up a shocking amount of garbage floating around in our oceans.
Researchers have been chronicling the degradation of the oceans for years, but for most of us the problem has languished out of sight and out of mind. Thanks to the media frenzy over MH370, the issue has been thrust into plain view. Reports of possible aircraft debris sightings have flashed repeatedly across the newswires, only to be dismissed as “just junk” — an errant shipping container, some wooden pallets — a few hours later. As the search for the missing plane drags on, “just junk” has come to mean “nothing out of the ordinary.”
And so it is, if you define “ordinary” as millions of tonnes of trash bobbing around on the ocean surface or lurking underneath. If humans have made something, there’s a good chance it’s been dumped into the ocean. The biggest single contaminant by far is plastic; oceanographers estimate there are 200 million tonnes of it in the sea today, in varying degrees of decomposition. A vast swirling current in the central North Pacific sucks so much trash into its maw that it’s called, in all seriousness, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Atlantic and Indian oceans have their own versions of it.
Last year, an Australian yacht racer told the Guardian that the mess is so bad in some parts of the Pacific that his crew needed to maintain a garbage lookout during a race to Japan, lest flotsam tear a hole in their boat. They couldn’t run their motor at night for fear of something wrapping around the propeller. The flotsam the sailors feared was the pollution they could see. Most of the debris in the Pacific garbage patch consists of small bits of plastic that don’t biodegrade but rather break down into tinier and tinier pieces, poisoning the marine food web.
Shipping produces some of the ocean waste, but most of it originates on land, as garbage that’s dumped into the sea, or as debris swept from shore during natural disasters or carried to the open water by rivers. International protocols meant to control ocean pollution clearly aren’t working. Moreover, nothing’s being done to clean up the mess that already exists. The worst patches of garbage are in open water, far beyond any national jurisdiction. The global community has joined in a rousing chorus of “It’s not my problem.”
But surely it is. To the extent that the open sea doesn’t belong to anyone, it belongs to everyone. The chunks of floating debris that Chinese satellite searchers mistakenly took for bits of MH370 are as much mine as they are yours. The plastic bag that a loggerhead turtle ingests because it thinks it’s a jellyfish has my name on it, and yours too.
The good news is that we can actually do something about this mess by making simple lifestyle changes: for starters, using less plastic. Collectively, we can insist on tougher regulations for activities that exploit the oceans — including stricter rules for container ships, so their cargo doesn’t fly off the deck so easily in rough weather.
In 2008, the United Nations created World Oceans Day, commemorated annually on June 8. It hasn’t caught on like Earth Day, likely because the oceans are off the radar for so many of us. The search for MH370 has narrowed the gap. Something good might come from the tragic loss of the plane and the people aboard if we could say that on June 8, 2014, the world began to take the health of the oceans seriously.
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