We're Looking for a Missing Plane and All We’ve Found Is Trash

A month after MH370 disappeared, trash is the only thing we've found—maybe we shouldn't ignore the symbolism there.

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Apr 7 2014, 9:20pm
Trash in the Pacific Ocean. Image: Kevin Krejci/Flickr

It’s been almost exactly a month since Malaysia flight MH370 went missing. In that time, search and rescue teams have found trash, trash, and more trash. But no airplane.

To be sure, finding an airplane in the middle of the Indian Ocean using satellites is no easy task. But we’ve done ourselves few favors by creating an environment that is so polluted with trash and oil and plastic and debris that, really, we have no idea what’s what.

I’m not the first to bring this up—the problem is so bad that even CNN, in its breathless, nearly nonstop coverage of the crash has noticed—but if there’s going to be an incident that calls attention to just how bad the pollution of our oceans has gotten, maybe this should be it. As we’ve learned from the MH370 search, the Pacific Ocean is a very big place, and humans don’t spend a whole lot of time hanging out there.

So far, authorities have spotted debris on at least 10 different satellite images. None of that debris has turned out to be wreckage from the plane. Instead, here’s a quick list of all of the non-plane junk they think has been found in the search for MH370:

None of these objects, none of this trash, has been confirmed to be from flight MH370. And none of it should probably be in the ocean. Paul Mobbs of The Ecologist wrote that “MH370 was a tragedy. The state of our oceans is a catastrophe.” There’s no point arguing one way or another on that—both things are very, very bad. 

It’s not just the oceans, of course. Microplastics and garbage patches have been found in rivers around the world and have been seen in the Great Lakes. If there is a body of water and there are humans anywhere near it, there will be trash in it. Fish have even begun using debris as makeshift reefs. The density of trash in the North Pacific Central Gyre outweighs the plankton there by a ratio of 6 to 1

Researchers working on cleaning up the oceans say there is no good way to do so; that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is already too vast and that cleanup is too costly to be feasible. That may be true. But when an airplane carrying 239 people presumably crashes into the midst of one ocean-sized dump, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we can’t find the wreckage amongst the garbage.

The latest word is that authorities have heard a ping of what they believe may be MH370's black box. Finding the plane is important—it's important to the families, it's important to the airline, it's important for the future of flight safety, and it's important for our psyche. Maybe the latest ping will be what ultimately leads authorities to find the plane. But there's value in finding yet more trash: Maybe eventually we'll get the message that it's time to clean this up.