Ocean pollution is a defining crisis of the twenty-first century. Considering even only the last decade, disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—one that leaked more than 200 million gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, have already caused irreparable damage to our biosphere. Additionally, the millions of tons of trash, oil, fertilizer, sewage, and toxic chemicals that enter the ocean every year only exacerbate this burgeoning problem. Though humanity has prided itself on its mastery of land, our uncontrolled dumping has caused beaches and coastlines to also fill with waste, killing plants and animals in some of the world’s most ecologically productive regions.
It was from the oceans that eukaryotic life first emerged, and even today microorganisms such as phytoplankton and cyanobacteria produce the lion’s share of the world’s biomass and oxygen. The slow death of aquatic environments from unbridled pollution will inevitably lead to the extinction of life in every corner of the world, not only those in the oceans. In short, this crisis is an issue that has encroached on every aspect of human life, and unless world-reaching solutions such as the Paris Climate Accords are taken seriously, it can very well lead to the end of human civilization as we know it. To further explore the issue, it is crucial to understand the source, cause, and possible solutions to the crisis. Before specific, actionable solutions can be taken, we as a species must examine the historical context of maritime ecological decay, the role of polymer materials in exacerbating the issue, the economic implications of solving the issue, and the extent of government’s role in containing the crisis.
Since the rise of human civilization, societies the world over have found their beginnings in river valleys. From the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia to the Yellow River in China, rivers have served as the backbone of all human activity. Rivers were the source of all life as they provided fresh water for farmland and livestock, but as technology progressed, they also served as the artery of industrial infrastructure. By the nineteenth century, rivers such as the Thames were crucial to the transportation of both goods and waste. Though the notion of dumping human sewage into drinking water is absurd today, it had been seen as a viable option since it eventually dumped into the ocean—a seemingly infinite body of water whose carrying capacity was limitless. This idea of the ocean pervaded the twentieth century, and it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the world realized its mistake.
Today, approximately eighty percent of marine pollution ultimately originates on land as a direct result of human activity. A prime example of this is the Yangtze River in Central China. Though it still holds the title of most economically productive river on earth, the ships that float atop it no longer carry grain and silk. Instead, massive container ships now tow electronics, plastics, and an alphabet soup of derived chemicals from the country’s industrial heart in Chongqing and Sichuan to the Port of Shanghai at its delta. Though these ships carry the products that make the world run, their engines also burn immense amounts of bunker fuel, a literal “bottom of the barrel” substance so vicious and sulfur-rich that it more closely resembles tar than gasoline.
But ships are not even the largest source of this waste. Agriculture, humanity’s greatest innovation, has also worked against us. For ance, when large tracts of land are plowed, the exposed soil can erode during rainstorms. Much of this runoff flows to the sea, carrying with it agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. Oil spills are the release of a liquid petroleum into the environment, mainly the marine ecosystem, and is a form of pollution. The term “oil spill” is usually given to marine oil spills, some oil spills occur on land but mainly in the ocean because that is where most oil is dredged from.
There are several categories of water pollutants. The most damaging and most numerous of all are plastics. Plastic can enter the ocean or other waterways in a variety of ways including dumping, littering, and just the carelessness of humans. We do this because we no longer have a use for our bottles, food waste, straws, or even TVs! You would think dumping is illegal since it pollutes the ocean but in fact, it is not at all as long as the person or company that is dumping it is 12 miles offshore. This plastic does not immediately decompose in nature. This means, the plastic that was thrown into the ocean fifty years ago is still in the ocean but most likely broken down into a microscopic state. Pollution is bad for the environment because not only does it make marine life sick, it can absorb into our bodies —93 percent of Americans age six or older test positive for Bisphenol A (a plastic known to cause hormone imbalances). (“ Eco Watch”)
Once the plastic is in the ocean, it stays there. It does not disappear. It will break down into a microscopic form. Mass scale plastic removal is currently unfeasible. Therefore microplastics in the ocean will continuously affect the marine life around it. An example of this is that oysters filter in water and the microscopic algae, along with the algae the oyster could also be taking in plastic particles that could be toxic to it and its consumers. This is not good because since there are no ways to remove microscopic plastic completely and the concentration will only get stronger. Ultimately, marine animals with the highest concentrations will be consumed by humans, placing nearly everyone on Earth at risk of microplastic toxicity.
Yet another source of pollution are chemicals. They are used in all types of agricultural processes. To protect our crops from bugs we spray them with pesticides, and to make them grow bigger we spray them with fertilizers. To ensure the health of livestock, commercial farmers spray insecticides that get kill diseases on the pens. This all sounds great but these chemicals can seep into the ground directly or run off into a river or stream and contaminate not only our water but even our soil. Eventually, these chemicals will make it into our water supply and contaminate it, then it will run off into rivers and eventually the ocean.
The effects of improper disposal of chemical waste in agriculture have led to a significant increase in the nitrogen concentration in the water. When it comes to water, this can produce too much nitrogen eutrophication, which causes the excessive growth of algae and phytoplankton with crippling consequences. Too many algae in the water can produce algal blooms, which spreads toxins known as ‘red tides’. Red tides are responsible for killing seabirds, fish, marine mammals, and can even harm humans. When these harmful blooms die, the bacteria consume all of the oxygen and creates a dead zone and fish cannot live in this area. While chemicals make everyday human life easier and healthier, they can do irreversible damage to the marine environment.
The sewage that enters rivers and streams is caused by dumping, mainly by the sewage treatment plants. These plants do this as a result of most of them are outdated or too small because were built in the mid-seventies because of the Clean Water Act of 1972. This means that either the plants get too full of sewage and the plant has to dump some out of its storage or the clean sewage has not been fully treated. The government needs to invest not only money but also more effort into keeping untreated sewage out of our waterways. Sewage is also severely degrading in the maritime environment. You might think that “All of the animals have been producing waste in the ocean for centuries. How is human waste different since it is organic?” Well, these days the food we eat is made up with chemicals, while also we have the issue of the quantity of sewage and the unregulated dumping of hygiene products like shampoo.
The effects of untreated sewage dumping can be extremely unhealthy not only to marine life but also human life. For example, sewage can transmit disease either by direct contact or through pollution of water supplies. Among other fecal-borne diseases like parasites such as roundworms. For most of history, populations were so small that the main problem with sewage was the gagging smell of it, and at times spreading disease or parasites locally. Sewage wasn’t all bad because it provided a benefit as a fertilizer for crops. As the population grew so did the problem of sewage contaminating the water, Like the effect of more feces entered wells, lakes, streams, and rivers, affecting nature as well as human health.
There are many ways oil can get into the ocean or any body of water. Of course the most obvious being oil spills but also ways like natural seeps, consumption, transportation, and extraction of oil. Nearly 85 percent of the 29 million gallons of petroleum that enter North American ocean waters each year as a result of human activities comes from airplanes to cars and small boats. (“SOURCES OF OIL IN THE SEA”) While less than 8 percent comes from tanker or pipeline spills. Firstly, natural seeps from the rocks below the seafloor. Oil seeps are common in many areas, including the Gulf of Mexico and offshore of Southern California, and in other areas where oil is found beneath the continental shelf (“ScienceDaily”).
Second, we talk about consumption, which includes runoff from land vehicles to marine boating and jet skis in coastal waters. Most cars drip oil on streets and highways which is washed off by rains. The millions of cars in large coastal cities are important sources. Another way is transportation, which mainly consists of spills from tankers and pipelines at sea because the companies really only care about profit. Lastly, we talk about extraction, which includes spills from offshore platforms or even blowouts during efforts to explore for and produce petroleum and gas. There is not a sure fire way to completely prevent oil pollution without making the economy crash; However, we can make stricter rules and regulations with harsher consequences to keep companies as well as people from taking shortcuts.
The effects of oil have on the ocean can be absolutely devastating like stopping up the blowholes of whales, making it impossible for them to breathe properly and disrupting their ability to communicate. Another example is that oil can coat the fur of penguins and seals, which wicks away the heat from their bodies leaving them vulnerable to hypothermia. Even when the oil doesn’t affect some marine mammals directly it can contaminate their food supply. This causes them to get sick or even die. When this happens, other animals higher on the food chain eat them because they are too weak to fight or run away. So the higher you go into the food chain the more toxic it gets.
In conclusion, the human species needs to expand its knowledge as a whole in order to fix the different types of marine pollution. Chemical pollution is mostly commercial and tighter regulation could help resolve the majority of the issue; however, this would have a negative economic impact. Sewage pollution is caused but unregulated dumping and can simply be fixed if we were to update not only the treatment complexes but also the regulations. Oil pollution is caused by things like unregulated dumping to oil seeps.
Any oil in any body of water can have no good effect on marine life as well as human life. Lastly, plastic pollution is caused by anything from careless littering to commercial dumping. Since plastic is man-made, nothing can completely decompose it; this means that it stays in the ocean until something or someone takes it out. Plastic can be mistaken for food from hungry animals or could just accidentally swim into causing animals to lose a limb or even suffocate to death. So next time you travel or throw something away, think about the consequences it could have not only on the environment but the human species as a whole.
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