Boeing 777
The currents of the Indian Ocean Gyre

Over recent weeks the news has been dominated by the story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370[1]. The plane, with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, lost contact with ground radar on the 8th March – and no trace of it has been found since.

A few days later, I was asked to write an article on how a plane could simply "disappear". As the article outlined[2], it’s not that difficult to lose a plane at sea. However, in the few weeks since my attention has been drawn to a far more significant aspect of the story; one which has not been headline news.

From the outset of the rescue operation there were reports of oil slicks and drifting debris spotted in the South China Sea. When the focus shifted to first the northern, then southern, and then back to the middle of the Indian Ocean, yet more debris was spotted. Satellite photos[3] from different nations were strewn across news casts show objects floating in the water. Spotter planes also reported seeing collections of floating debris.

Since the plane’s loss we’ve had almost daily reports of possible debris. Despite hopes being raised each time a large patch of debris was found[4], on investigation none of this debris found had any link to the missing plane.

Almost a month later, the most significant untold story of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that our oceans are full of trash! That trash comes in all shapes and sizes[5], and, for the first time, the amount of trash out there is hampering all efforts to try and find the possible location of the plane.

The large chunks spotted by satellite and search plane – a few metres across – represent the smallest fraction of the sum of human waste dumped in the oceans. What the rescue services have seen is just the waste which floats – a lot also sinks to the bottom[6]. In fact, the bulk of the human waste in the oceans is made up of particles only a millimetre or two across[7].

The problem is that the oceans are very big – and so it’s easy to hide an awful lot of human wastes out there. However, some recent studies have shown that the amount of waste in the water column now outweighs the plankton by up to six-to-one[8]. In places the debris is so dense that we see reef fish, usually only found on the coastal fringe, living within the debris in the middle of the open oceans[9].

Drifting waste is concentrated by winds, waves and ocean currents. You may have heard of the Great Pacific garbage patch[10] in the middle of the Pacific. There are in fact five ocean gyres which now concentrate human waste. One of them, the Indian Ocean Gyre[11], covers the area to the west of Australia where the search effort for flight MH370 is now centred. That’s what’s making the search for the plane so difficult – there’s an awful lot of garbage drifting around just there.

Learned articles[12] have been written about the problems of waste in the oceans for some time. The eco-concerns of the 1970s led to the adoption of the London Dumping Convention[13] – and yet, despite many campaigns[14], this seems to have had little impact on the inexorable rise of the volumes of waste now entering the world’s ocean systems.

This material is poisoning the oceans[15]. As one recent study states[16],

"The longevity of plastic is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of years, but is likely to be far longer in deep sea and non-surface polar environments. Plastic debris poses considerable threat by choking and starving wildlife, distributing non-native and potentially harmful organisms, absorbing toxic chemicals and degrading to micro-plastics that may subsequently be ingested."

We know[17] that plastics are now disruptively re-engineering[18] marine ecology, harming ocean life[19], and that this ultimately threatens the human food supply[20]. The difficulty is that solving this problem is centred on that multi-faceted phenomena which is at the root of so many ecological issues – the throwaway consumer society.

The loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is a human tragedy. But the factors which are today exacerbating the search for the plane mark an even greater human tragedy in the future. One which, as recent coverage of the rescue operations shows, we are myopically incapable of recognising as a greater danger to us all.



  1. Guardian On-line: ‘Malaysia Airlines flight MH370’
  2. Speed may shrink the time, but we still live in a very big world – the physical realities of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Paul Mobbs, Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, Tuesday 11th March 2014 –
  3. French and Chinese satellite images show ‘potential objects’, Paul Farrell, Guardian On-line Sunday 23rd March 2014 –
  4. MH370: 122 objects spotted in Indian Ocean are ‘most credible lead yet’, Tania Branigan, The Guardian, Wednesday 26 th March 2014 –
  5. Wikipedia: ‘Marine debris’
  6. Our deep sea garbage dump: 18,000 hours of footage shows Pacific seafloor heaped in man-made trash, Daily Mail, 26th June 2013 –
  7. Scales of Spatial Heterogeneity of Plastic Marine Debris in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, Miriam C. Goldstein, Andrew J. Titmus, Michael Ford, Plos One, 20th November 2013 –
  8. Density of Plastic Particles found in zooplankton trawls from Coastal Waters of California to the North Pacific Central Gyre, C.J. Moore, G.L. Lattin, A.F. Zellers, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, 2008 –
  9. TED: ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, November 2010 –
  10. Wikipedia: ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’
  11. Wikipedia: ‘Indian Ocean Gyre’
  12. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review, José G.B. Derraik, Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol.44 pp.842-852, 2002 ––Derraik_1_.pdf
  13. Wikipedia: ‘London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter’
  14. Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, Michelle Allsopp, Adam Walters, David Santillo, and Paul Johnston, Greenpeace International, 2006 –
  15. Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat, Charles James Moore., Environmental Research, vol.108 pp.131-139, 2008 –
  16. Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments, David K. A. Barnes, Francois Galgani, Richard C. Thompson and Morton Barlaz, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, vol.364 pp.1985-1998, 2009 –
  17. Microplastic ingestion decreases energy reserves in marine worms, Stephanie L. Wright, Darren Rowe, Richard C. Thompson, Tamara S. Galloway, Current Biology, vol.23 no.23 pp.R1031-R1033, 2nd December 2013 –
  18. Microplastics make marine worms sick, Physorg, 2nd December 2013 –
  19. Mounting microplastic pollution harms ‘earthworms of the sea’ – report, Jessica Aldred, Guardian On-line, Monday 2nd December 2013 –
  20. Microplastics in the aquatic food chain: Sources, measurement, occurrence and potential health risks, P.C.H. Hollman, H. Bouwmeester and R.J.B. Peters, RIKILT Wageningen University Research/Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, June 2013 –