What Can We Learn from the Polluted Oceans of the Past?

What Can We Learn from the Polluted Oceans of the Past?

Despite decades of environmental effort to clean up the world’s oceans, they remain polluted by discarded plastic, random trash, industrial waste, and microplastics. It is one of the biggest problems in the world today. While the solution surely involves evolution in thinking, many experts and researchers also assert the answer lies in an improvement to something we already practice today – global waste management.

Increased attention to this specific area will likely yield many benefits, including economic growth. Additionally, improved waste management practices also make it likely that the volume of waste finding its way into the ocean will decrease going forward. However, while the decisions of the present are important, they are not the only factor that determines what happens to the oceans. To see the problem clearly, we must also understand how humanity’s past actions have led us where we are today.


Understanding the Magnitude of the Issue

While we know the impact of marine debris poses serious threats to natural habitats, human, health, and biodiversity, most people don’t understand the magnitude of what has been happening to the world’s oceans. As recently as 35 years ago, communities around the world used the ocean as a disposal site for anything deemed unusable.

As radioactive waste, trash, raw sewage, industrial sludge, and other contaminants were thrown in the sea, little was known about how these decisions may someday affect the health of the planet. This environmental ignorance has led to a day of reckoning as we examine the current state of our waterways.

Few complete records exist on exactly what (and how much) waste was put into the ocean before the year 1972. Before that, there was no mandatory reporting and little understanding of potential consequences. But according to the National Academy of Sciences, there are still some ways to estimate past volumes of ocean dumping. The statistics are unsettling at best.

Waste Disposal Prior to 1970

According to the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, a 1970 report from the Council on Environmental Quality, and the EPA, the years leading up to the 1970s saw a large amount of waste enter the marine ecosystem. This waste included 100 million tons of petroleum products; 4.5 million tons of industrial waste; 38 million tons of dredged and polluted material; 0.5 million tons of construction and demolition debris; up to 4 million tons of acidic chemical waste from pulp mills; more than 100,000 tons of organic chemical waste, over 1 million tons of heavy metals, and 4.5 million tons of sewage.

The idea of this volume of waste going into the ocean each year is inconceivable by today’s standards, especially with piety’s increasing focus on sustainability. However, although these statistics are upsetting, they only represent what we know was dumped into the ocean. There may have been even more waste put there as a result of poor waste management practices. Additional harmful material is also present in the ocean in the form of microplastics and heavy metals.

Following these years of uncontrolled dumping, some parts of the ocean, like the New York Bight off the mouth of the Hudson River, have become so contaminated with harmful pollutants that the oxygen levels in the water have decreased. It goes without saying, this development affects humans and animals, not to mention the health of the entire planet. So, have we learned anything from our previous mistakes?

Will We Learn from Our Mistakes?

Despite what we have learned, millions of tons of plastic debris and other waste still flows into the world’s oceans each year. Today’s culprits are primarily developing countries that don’t have adequate infrastructure to handle their waste management problems. Even with the presence of established internal systems necessary for managing debris, the U.S. still contributes some 100,000 metric tons of waste per year. Experts agree this is a number that could likely double by 2025.

We may have finally instituted restrictions on ocean dumping, but waste management practices are still not as effective as they could be. The problem has not disappeared, only changed its shape. If we don’t find ways to make our current waste management practices more effective for all countries, we are continuing to compound the mistakes of the past and potentially negatively impacting our marine systems. As we look out over beaches where marine life is tangled in plastic and food sources are endangered, we may soon realize the past is no better than the present.

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