The Ocean: Is it the World’s largest Toilet?
Every year, 200 million tons of unprocessed human excrement is dumped into the ocean. The world today faces a global crisis of waste management, and with the human population destined to rise ever more, one question remains unanswered: what’s going to happen to the world’s oceans?
71% of Earth’s surface is covered by ocean, and throughout history our waste has found its way there. Water is the lifeline of our planet, yet humans have failed to treat it as such.
The fact is that untreated sewage is entering our coasts and waterways at an alarming rate. No longer can we be so naïve as to believe that what you flush down the toilet or drop on the side of the road just disappears forever with out any consequences.
Identifying the Problem
‘WHO’ estimates that 2.4 billion people lack access to improved health sanitation facilities and 946 million of these people are forced to defecate openly in the environment. 90% of all sewage from the developing world is released directly into the environment, where all roads lead to the ocean. Raw sewage diffuses into ground water, runs into streams and rivers, enters the water wells, and flows directly into the sea.
Cities with modern sanitation systems have their own problems. Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are a serious issue in urban areas. These happen when Combined Sewer Systems (CSSs), which collect water from runoff, industrial wastewater, and domestic sewage in one pipe, overflow. During storms, the runoff floods the system, and the excess waste is poured out into waterways.
In New York alone, 27 billion gallons of sewage and polluted storm-water are released from 460 CSO locations each year. After a day of bad weather, the beaches nearby often become too contaminated to swim in.
Before the EPA, Manhattan was dumping 150 million gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson each day. Efforts have since been made to control this seemingly limitless flow.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 charged the agency with cleaning up America’s sewage problems, and provided billions of dollars to do so. Among other responsibilities, the EPA is tasked with laying down minimum standards for wastewater treatment before cities can release it. The EPA is also responsible for regulating city sewer systems so they don’t overflow. But despite the EPA’s efforts, sewage continues to remain a problem in the United States.
Septic systems are another waste management system used around the world with its own flaws. Septic tanks are buried underground, where they collect the waste from an individual home and break it down. When these tanks aren’t properly maintained, they can leach untreated sewage into the groundwater, polluting sources of drinking water and eventually reaching the ocean.
Florida’s Indian River Lagoon is bordered by 300,000 septic tanks, thousands of which are outdated and not properly maintained. As a result, over 2 million pounds of nitrogen are leached into the lagoon each year. This is only one instance of a worldwide problem.
Untreated sewage also infiltrates the ocean directly at-sea.
Cruise ships act as floating cities out in the middle of the ocean. Hosting thousands of passengers at a time and operating year-round, fleets of cruise ships dump massive amounts of sewage directly into the oceans each year. According to the EPA, an average cruise ship generates more than seven million gallons of sewage per year. For the global cruise ship fleet, that adds up to well over a billion gallons.
By law ships can still dump raw sewage if they’re more than three nautical miles from shore. And almost 40 percent of cruise ships still rely on 35-year-old waste treatment technology, leaving sewage with high levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants harmful to aquatic life and people.
In 2013, a Carnival Cruise ship deemed “the poop-cruise” was towed into Mobile, Alabama amid horror stories of the vessel being “caked in urine and raw sewage” to the extent that there was reportedly “sewage running down the walls.” A fire had knocked out the vessel’s electricity, where it was left floating at sea for days.
One of the reasons human sewage is so harmful to the waters it enters is because it sparks the process of eutrophication. Eutrophication happens when excess waste feeds the dense growth of phytoplankton, which sucks the oxygen out of their environment.
When a large amount of human waste enters a body of water, levels of nitrogen increase rapidly. Nitrogen is a limiting agent on plant growth, so when it becomes available in high concentrations, algal blooms rise and devour all the available living space and oxygen. Animals that cannot escape these areas of low oxygen are left to suffocate. The results are felt all the way to the top of the food chain.
This devastating process can lead to the formation of ‘dead zones’ near the coast, and scientists have counted over 400 such of these dead zones around the planet.
In the tropics, the effects of Eutrophication are felt by coral reefs where excessive nitrates can lead to the degradation of calcifying corals. The process has been documented off the coast of Negril, Jamaica where only 8% of Jamaica’s coral reef is still active. Fish are an important part of the local diet and their disappearance from the ecosystem has altered nature’s equilibrium and the people’s food source.
Is There a Solution?
The London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution was one global push to stop the direct disposal of wastes at sea. There were 89 parties in the convention, and the ruling was entered into force in 1975.
In the United States, the Ocean Dumping Act was another piece of legislation enacted in 1972 along with the Clean Water Act, which set regulations in motion against illegal dumping at sea, and the act also provided for the designation and regulation of marine protected areas.
But still untreated sewage is flowing into the ocean, so what’s not working?
In many developing countries, the infrastructure is simply too lacking to support any action to reduce land-based sewage. And to monitor point sources in other urban areas around the world requires substantial management and control, which aren’t always available.
There have been technological advances that might provide a solution. For areas around the world that lack proper wastewater treatment infrastructure, dry sanitation has become a new option to deal with human waste. These ecological toilets don’t need water to operate, and instead they contain and break down human waste through pH, desiccation, heat, and time. The nutrients from the waste can then be recycled to use with agriculture, so this is really a win-win for areas that have severe water availability issues.
In areas with updated wastewater systems, the Cap and Trade of nitrogen is a method of pollution control being developed to consistently decrease point source pollution. Cap and Trade works by making industry responsible for the costs of their pollution (an externality in business), and putting a cap on the overall allowable nitrogen pollution. This means that the cap (nitrogen pollution) can be lowered over time and industry (waste management) can react accordingly or pay hefty fines.
States can also invest their resources towards upgrading outdated sewage treatment facilities and septic systems. For example, in 2013 Miami-Dade County agreed to a $1.6 billion upgrade of its sewage systems to reduce overflows.
In the tropics, Marine biologist Andrew Ross runs Seascape Caribbean and he’s managed to successfully create an artificial reef made of metal. Over the last nine months it has slowly been covered with coral. But recovery of the coral alone will not win the battle to keep the natural environment healthy.
On a localized level, organizations such as The Surfrider Foundation also promote volunteer action by sponsoring beach cleanups and supporting action for clean water resources.
The world is not vast enough to escape the problem of a growing human population. And our oceans cannot continue to act as a dumping ground for our waste. The time is now more than ever to take action to support solutions to these problems, because nobody wants to swim in an ocean filled with what they just flushed down the toilet.
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