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Landfill on the High Seas: Why's the Ocean Full of Trash?

Image: A patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean

A patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean in Aug. 2009. Mario Aguilera / Scripps Institution of Oceanography via AP file

The search for flight MH370 that has now entered its second month and covered tremendous swaths of ocean has brought attention to a pressing environmental issue: the tons of trash floating in the sea.

Searchers have found hundreds of objects floating in the remote waters. So far, they have all turned out to be trash. The junk not only complicates the hunt for the missing jet but highlights the huge and growing problem of sea garbage.

Image: Satellite image of ocean debris
A part of about 300 objects floating in the Indian Ocean near the search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner are shown. Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency / AP file

“The ocean is full of literally hundreds of millions of tons of junk,” Dr. Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Center in Southampton told NBC News. “It has gone into the oceans from land, it’s come off ships over many many years and it takes a long time to break down.”

Complicating efforts even more is the fact that the search off Australia is concentrated near one of the world’s garbage hot spots or “gyres.”

“These gyres bring together the surface debris,” Boxall said. “It’s a bit like the plug hole in the sink. As water goes down the plug hole, any surface stuff goes towards the center of that gyre.”

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Kathleen Dohan of Earth and Space Research, a Seattle-based non-profit, is in charge of a project that illustrates the circulation of the trash in the world’s five main gyres. “What I did for the animation was put ‘particles’ in the ocean on a regular grid and let them be carried along by the real currents over 10 years,” Dohan said.

There are five main regions of garbage concentration in the oceans –- in the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and Indian oceans.

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MH370 searchers are looking for wreckage near the Indian Ocean gyre, and that garbage-suck is complicating and hampering their efforts, said Marcus Eriksen, the founder of the research and campaign group 5Gyres.

“They are there,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of objects there and that is the garbage patch.”

The North Pacific gyre is the size of around 9 million soccer field, and contains 30 percent of the world’s ocean garbage.

“If you leave LA and you sail towards Hawaii, after maybe 400, 500 miles you begin to see little tiny fragments of plastic trash,” Eriksen said.

The challenge of scouring the oceans is huge.

“The ocean covers 72 percent of our planet” said Boxall. “If we took every ship on the planet and went out and started picking the rubbish up, we’d be out there for hundreds of years.”

“Ocean clean-up is not a viable option” agrees Eriksen. “If you want to clean up the ocean the best way is to go to the beach and pick up the trash."

NBC News' Sarah Burke contributed to this report.