The Ocean as the World’s Sewer

Our oceans regulate the global temperature, provide marine life for food, transportation, and a beautiful view at the beach. It’s also the world’s landfill…or seafill! Many industries from oil, agriculture, and other industries dump into rivers and oceans. This impacts the health of our oceans. In fact, the National Resources Defense Council petitioned the EPA to prevent oil companies from dumping in the water.

“Industry interests should not come before safe drinking water. In the face of increasing shortages and growing demand for clean water, we can’t afford to continue trashing reserves we may well need in the years to come, even if they are not being tapped today” said Amy Mall, NRDC senior policy analyst.

They have a point. There are other sources of ocean pollution. Contaminants like Mercury get into the water through emissions by power plants via. falling as rain once in the air.

Nonetheless, the EPA in the 80s gave an exemption for fossil fuel companies to dump waste products into groundwater sources, called aquifers, that were considered too salty for consumption. However, a growing population and demand for water means now fresh water sources are further constrained by giving these exemptions. This leads to increased transportation by water to fill high demand far away in addition to drilling deeper wells.

In a study by the National Institute of Health, a study of 18 wells both near and far away from dumping sites found that rivers were contaminated mainly due to residential and industrial effluents (waste water), and solid waste dumping causes more of the groundwater contamination.

The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA), also called the Ocean Dumping Act, was passed in 1972 to protect the oceans. You can see the text of the act itself here. This is necessary because even before 1968, here’s what the estimated chemical dumping was according to the National Academy of Sciences:

  • 100 million tons of petroleum products;
  • two to four million tons of acid chemical wastes from pulp mills;
  • more than one million tons of heavy metals in industrial wastes; and
  • more than 100,000 tons of organic chemical wastes.

Over 100,000 tons of chemical waste alone? Think of how global demand for resources has increased this dumping! The oceans are incredibly large in volume. However, the majority of marine live near the shallower waters of the coast. This is due to the sun providing heat and light for underwater vegetation. Thus, where we dump the most impacts marine life the most. The other hot spots for marine life in the ocean is near the ocean floor where the heat from the Earth’s core allows life to survive.

The EPA has an Ocean Dumping Map where you can see the location of many of these dumping practices. Below I have provided a global photo of our impact on the oceans.


Photo Courtesy of UN/Logan. Map: Present-day Cumulative Human Impact on ocean ecosystems (Halpern et al., Science, 2008).

Another issue is plastics dumping. Not only does it not break down (500-1,000 years!), but it can release harmful pollutants like PCBs, BPA, DDT and PAH into seawater. Additionally, seabirds, fish, and turtles consume plastics, which can cause fatal internal damage. If a smaller fish eats plastic and is then eaten by a larger fish, that larger fish can also have health effects from indirectly consuming plastic. Right now we only recycle 5% of plastics. In fact, 93% of Americans aged 6 and up tested positive for BPA in their bodies! In a survey of Lake Erie, 85% of plastic was microscopic in size. In fact, 15-31% of these plastic polluting oceans comes from synthetic clothing and car tires via. washing clothes and driving, respectively. Here’s a global map of plastic dumping:


Solutions to this plastic dumping can be tire manufacturers reverting back to rubber, and textile makers stop spraying clothes with plastic. Also, washing machines can have filters to prevent the plastic from going into the water supply.

Our world is growing in resource demand in a finite resource world. Better recycling methods and self-control on the dumpers’ ends are needed if we are to prevent this accumulation of garbage from getting worse. Plastics are toxic, and it’s now small enough to enter our bodies through our skin! I rather get Vitamin C than BPA for lunch. How about you?

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