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About The Asian reporter. (Portland, Or.) 1991-current | View Entire Issue (Sept. 7, 2015)
September 7, 2015
ASIA / PACIFIC
THE ASIAN REPORTER n Page 3
Oceanic junk ranges from LEGOS to suspected jet wreckage
ENVIRONMENTALLY UNFRIENDLY. A
plastic bottle lies among other debris washed ashore
on an Indian Ocean beach in Uswetakeiyawa, north of
Colombo, Sri Lanka. For years along the Cornish coast
of Britain, Atlantic Ocean currents have carried thou-
sands of LEGO pieces onto beaches. In Kenya, cheap
flip-flop sandals are churned relentlessly in the Indian
Ocean surf, until finally being spit out onto the sand.
In Bangladesh, fishermen are haunted by floating
corpses that the Bay of Bengal sometimes puts in their
path. And now the oceans have revealed something
else: part of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the jetliner
that vanished 17 months ago with 239 people on
board. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
By Tim Sullivan
The Associated Press
EW DELHI — For years along the
Cornish coast of Britain, Atlantic
Ocean currents have carried
thousands of LEGO pieces onto the
beaches. In Kenya, cheap flip-flop sandals
are churned relentlessly in the Indian
Ocean surf, until finally being spit out onto
the sand. In Bangladesh, fishermen are
haunted by floating corpses that the Bay of
Bengal sometimes puts in their path.
And now the oceans have revealed
something else: part of Malaysia Airlines
Flight 370, the jetliner that vanished 17
months ago with 239 people on board.
Experts believe it crashed into the vast
emptiness of the Indian Ocean, some-
where between Africa and Australia.
While some wreckage presumably sank,
some is also thought to have joined the
millions of tons of oceanic debris — from
LEGOS accidentally spilled from cargo
ships to abandoned fishing nets to
industrial trash — that can spend years
being carried by the earth’s currents,
sometimes turning up thousands of miles
away from where they entered the water.
So there was little surprise among
oceanographers when part of a jet’s wing,
suspected wreckage from the vanished
Boeing 777, was found in late July along
the shores of Reunion, a French island off
the African coast. Malaysian investigators
were also dispatched to the Maldives, a
South Asian archipelago nation, to
examine debris that had washed ashore
“The ocean is not a bathtub. It’s in
constant motion,” said Erik van Sebille, an
oceanographer with the Grantham
Institute at Imperial College London who
has spent years studying how currents
carry debris. “At the surface it’s this giant,
churning machine that moves things from
A to B,” he said. “And it’s connecting all the
areas of the globe.”
Often, that giant churning machine also
moves in fairly predictable ways, with
currents and winds moving in predictable
directions and speeds.
Charitha Pattiaratchi, an oceanog-
rapher at the University of Western
Australia, used computer modelling last
year to predict that debris from Flight 370
might end up somewhere near Reunion, or
nearby Madagascar, about now. He
doubts, however, that the debris found in
the Maldives is also from the jetliner.
Because the Maldives lie north of the
equator and Reunion Island is to the south,
finding wreckage in both spots is highly
unlikely, he said, because ocean currents
and winds make it extremely difficult for
flotsam to cross the equator.
Plus, he adds, it would be exceedingly
difficult for any Flight 370 debris to have
ended up in the Maldives at all by now. To
reach there, the wreckage would have had
to float west from the current search area
off Australia and toward Africa, then turn
north and travel along the African coast
past Somalia and into the Arabian Sea,
before turning south and east toward the
Maldives. That would be a massive
journey to make in just 17 months; debris
found on Reunion, in contrast, could have
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“If it is from MH370, then that’s a very
hard thing to explain. Not entirely
impossible, because we’re talking about
nature,” he said.
Flight 370 disappeared March 8, 2014,
on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
While officials believe it crashed in the
Indian Ocean, killing all aboard, the
wreckage and cause remain elusive
despite a vast ongoing search led by
Finding anything specific amid the
oceanic junk piles requires immense effort.
Just how much debris is out there? No
one knows, though certainly the scale is
According to a 2015 study, the world
dumps 8.8 million tons of plastic into the
world’s oceans every year. The study, led
by University of Georgia environmental
engineering professor Jenna Jambeck,
warned that in a decade the plastic trash
in the oceans could total 170 million tons.
Scientists have identified five garbage
patches, gargantuan corrals of debris
formed by circular ocean currents. One,
the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch,
could be as large as Texas.
But do not, van Sebille warns, picture
masses of garbage floating on the surface
of the water. “These are not islands of
trash. There are no big pieces that you can
stand on, even in the garbage patches,” he
said. Instead, those millions of tons of
plastic quickly disappear from view,
reduced to a near-invisible cloud that
floats just beneath the surface.
“After a few months, the sea and sun
have completely broken down the plastic
into a confetti of tiny, tiny pieces,” he said.
The small size, he notes, doesn’t make
them environmentally friendly. The
minuscule particles can be even more
dangerous, he said, because they can
easily enter the food chain after being
eaten by small fish, and are extremely
difficult to clean up.
In Kenya, Julie Church has found a use
for some flotsam. The marine conserva-
tionist, inspired by village children who
turn beach debris into toys, created a
company that transforms castoff sandals
into bright sculptures and playthings.
Today, Ocean Sole recycles an average of
2,200 pounds of flip-flops each week.
Judging by the trash they find around the
sandals, Church thinks some footwear
floated to Kenya from as far as Indonesia
But that’s a rare happy ending amid so
much debris. More often, it’s a litany of the
prosaic and the strange.
There are the wealth of goods dumped
into the water when hundreds — and
sometimes thousands — of shipping
containers are lost at sea every year.
Those LEGOS on the Cornish coast come
compliments of a container thrown
overboard by a rogue wave in 1997.
There are the thousands of buoys that
have littered beaches in Alaska, along with
weaving taiko, dance and theatre
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building insulation, property stakes, and
crates used by fishermen. There was the
164-foot ship cast adrift after Japan’s 2011
tsunami and sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard
in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012 before it could
There are the corpses that Mohammed
Nasir sees as he fishes in the Bay of
“I have seen many such bodies in my
life,” said the 53-year-old Bangladeshi. “I
often think how unlucky they are. They
have left their families behind.”
But mostly? Mostly it’s garbage.
Thousands and thousands of tons of
Chris Pallister, president of Gulf of
Alaska Keeper, a beach cleanup
organization, said by e-mail that nearly
everything his crews find is trash.
Sometimes, though, even that has
“Such as shoes, particularly in my case,
infant shoes,” he said. “When you
contemplate where they come from, it can
be quite disturbing.”
Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer in Juneau,
Alaska, Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Kristen
Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.
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