Waste and Litter

Why Oceans Are Important To Us

In his charming and insightful book called ‘The Immense Journey’, biologist-author Loren Eiseley said:

“We have many ways to quench our thirst, but no way to overcome our need for water…its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future; it moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of the air…If there is magic on the planet, it is contained in water.”

There are about 326 million cubic miles (=525 cubic kilometers) of water on this planet. The largest percentage, 97.4% is found in the oceans.  2.6% is on land and most of this is locked in the great polar ice caps. All the life-sustainable fresh water found in the worlds lakes, creeks, streams, and rivers and in the groundwater or aquifers, represents less than 0.01 percent of the total. Water is virtually and intrinsically important!

The world’s oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. Life probably originated in the seas, and life still depends largely on their well-functioning. Most of the solar heat that hits this planet is stored there, most of the conversion of sunlight to food energy by plants takes place in water, most of the world’s fresh supplies of oxygen are produced by microscopic plant-like organisms floating near the surface of the oceans, the global climate is regulated, and a lot of our food protein comes from the sea. The Ocean is also one of the most important traffic routes and a sink for a large portion of our wastes. It provides natural resources and, to an increasing extent, raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition to these primarily material aspects, the ocean has acquired significant value as a recreational area. More and more people seek recreation and relaxation in, or near the water. Marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing branches of industry.  Proximity to the sea has great value, reflected in incredibly high real estate prices for seashore property. Roughly 70% of the world population lives within 200 km of the coast, and two third of all metropolises, having a population of more than 2.5 million, are situated on the coast. Between 100 and 200 million people live in coastal zones below storm tidal level.  Ignoring these fragile and vital eco-systems can only spell disaster.

From the earliest days of human settlements, up to the industrial revolution, waterways have been a major means of transport. Cities and industrial plants, even after the industrial revolution, have been located on these waterways, because many of them require water for manufacturing and/or shipping to coastal ports. With very few exceptions, all streams and rivers flow into other rivers or into lakes, which, in turn, have outlets to wetlands, bays, estuaries, seas and oceans.

The aggregation of wastes flowing into our streams and estuaries, and ultimately into the oceans, is a biochemical soup carrying thousands of different chemicals. Rainwater and snow melt, that run off from congested urban areas, collect street oil and chemicals as well as many metals. Runoff into streams and rivers adjacent to farmlands carry tons of suspended particles of soil. This is not only damaging to fish but can also choke-out submerged oxygen-giving grasses in coastal woodlands, bays or estuaries. Runoff from timber harvesting activities, especially clear cutting, deprives the exposed land of thousands of tons of soil and has caused the pollution of some of the most valuable spawning grounds for trout and salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Runoff of the nitrogen and phosphorus components of fertilizers leads to an oxygen depletion in the water. This depletion has caused massive fish die-offs and can wipe out whole areas of marine habitat necessary to maintain the life cycles of myriads of species of aquatic life. Other chemicals, such as DDT can accumulate in the tissues of marine animals to toxic levels, even if they live their entire lives in remote parts of the globe (Antarctic penguins and seal species for example).

The incredibly rapid petrochemical revolution, which forms the basis for this modern age of plastic, has spawned a nearly exponential increase in major sources of pollution affecting our stratosphere, atmosphere, lands and waters. We build this material to last and now, after years of dumping it into the sea, it has come back to haunt us, killing and maiming marine life. Plastic is believed to be the most far-reaching man-made threat facing many marine species, annually killing or maiming tens of thousands of seabirds, seals, sea lions and sea otters, as well as hundreds of whales, dolphins, porpoises and turtles.

We know that the deadly flows we are adding to our oceans do not just disappear.  Many of them do not even decay. In all, this mixture can kill plant and marine life, contaminate food supplies and endanger people and entire coastal communities. With over 50% of the US population now living within 100 miles of our coastlines, it is no accident that the highest chemical contamination can be found in waters of the largest of the cities on these coasts – Boston, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

What long-term effects and future afflictions are in store for our “water planet” is beyond our present knowledge, but there is doubt that global environmental changes will have serious effects on the oceans will pose great problems for many countries, and the very existence of some island states may even be threatened. Given the different functions oceans and coastal areas have for human society, conflicts between different interests, such as utilization and protection, will arise.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Marine Litter

People create a lot of waste and even though it can be processed, recycled and properly disposed of a significant amount of it escapes into the environment. When we talk of marine debris, also known as marine litter, then we refer to human-created solid waste that deliberately or accidentally was released in a lake, river, waterway, sea or the ocean. By broad estimates, 10% of what will become marine litter is thrown away by people directly on the beach, but that 80% actually comes from inland sources, from it is transported by wind, rain and rivers into the oceans of the world.

Marine debris comes in all sizes: from wrecked vessels, large cargo containers and fishing nets, to plastic bags and soda bottles, cloth fibers and plastic beads. Similarly, the materials and substances vary across a broad spectrum: Glass, metal, cardboard, paper and textile make up about 25%, while 75% of all marine litter is composed of various forms of plastic polymers. The most common are plastic bags, beverage and food containers and the very tiny so-called mermaid spheres, which are very small plastic pellets that are used to manufacture all sorts of different plastics and shipped around the world in huge quantities. By all accounts, billions of them have found their way into the environment.

Most people are still wondering about why they should be concerned. After all, the ocean is vast, and it is hard to imagine any human activities could significantly disturb it. So let me point out some of the reasons why we should be concerned.

First, ocean litter negatively impact marine life and marine biodiversity and resilience. Litter moves with ocean currents, winds and tides. As a result what we find on our beaches constitutes only a tiny fraction while most of it stays at sea where in some areas we already find six times more micro plastics than plankton. Furthermore, the plastic accumulated through the food chain and poses significant health risk to many species who are unable to distinguish between plastic and their regular diet. As a consequence hundreds of thousands of marine animals, from sea birds, to sea turtles, dolphins and whales die every year, and when we study their stomach content, we find anything from tooth brushes and golf balls, to fishing nets. Some of these animals, such as fish, sea turtles and dolphins, get trapped by ghost nets, abandoned fishing gear that drift across the oceans. Other marine debris end of sinking to the sea floor where they can prevent the exchange between water and sediment, eventually suffocating the deep-sea environment and the life that depends on it. And if that was not bad enough, it turns out that marine litter is also a vector disease and invasive species. Algae or mollusks can attach themselves to floating pieces of plastic and then disrupt ecosystems in places far away from their geographical origin.

Secondly, marine litter impacts our economic activities, including fisheries, tourism, shipping and recreation. Data published by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) suggests that the costs associated with marine litter (fisheries, aquaculture, marine tourism and cleanups) amount to about 8 billion dollars a year.

Thirdly, we ought to be concerned because the situation will likely get worse in the coming decades. The worldwide, annual plastic production in the 1950s was about 1.5 million tolls. That figure climbed to 300 million tons by 2014 and is expected to reach 33 billion tons by the year 2050. Unless we drastically reduce the mismanagement and losses, hundreds of millions of tons of waste can be expected to escape into the oceans.

Dealing effectively with the marine litter problem requires a multi-pronged approach. Raising awareness and education people is something we have been doing all along but there is not a lot of data that suggests that these efforts have been successful, i.e. produced tangible outcomes.

Beach Clean-ups, while commendable, are not helping much to resolve the problem. For once, only about 10% of all the ocean litter is found on our beaches, and then it clearly does not tackle the actual source of the problem: our constant overconsumption and generation of waste. The idea that recycling and re-use will solve the marine litter issues is nothing more than illusion. It may buy us some time, but what is really needed is a change to our consumption habits.

In order to have clean seas, we need to make a difference on land. All of us.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more

The Waste Crisis

According to the EPA, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash, of which 87 million tons, or about 34%, was recycled and composted. Waste generation has increased to about 4.4 pounds a day per person with 1.5 pounds being composted or recycled. Most of that waste ends up in a landfill, in essence a relatively inexpensive, earth moving operation. The downside of using landfills is that they remove valuable lands from other uses for generations to come, and because decomposition generates explosive methane gas, and waste settles over time, it is impossible to build any structure over landfills once they are closed. The situation is exacerbated since most landfills are located close to urban centers where development pressure is greatest.

But let’s have a look what happens inside a landfill. As it turns out, the waste is not as dormant as it may appear, but has a life of its own instead. Deep inside microbes are feeding on organic materials and produce chemical changes. Settlement takes place as the lower parts of the landfill are compressed by the weight above.

Infiltrating rainwater leaches heavy metals, PCBs, lead, solvents, dioxin, DDT, benzene, CFCs, furans from the myriad of products and substances dumped in the landfill, forming a contaminated liquid that sooner or later percolates downward and – unless we install some barriers – pollutes the underlying ground water. Today, around 45,000 different chemicals are produced and about 1,000 new ones are added each year.  Unfortunately, many of these substances are toxic and can damage parts of the complex and fragile environmental web. And equally disconcerting, many of chemicals find their way into our landfills. Even modern landfills with liners and leachate collection systems are a problem.  If they are not leaking now, they will probably start leaking within a few decades of their closure.  The use of modern technology simply postpones the inevitable.

In addition to the leachate, landfills also cause atmospheric pollution. The decomposition processes release gases such as methane, carbon, dioxide, vinyl chloride and hydrogen sulphide, which slowly seep into the air around the landfill. This impairs air quality in the immediate vicinity and, on a larger scale, contributes to greenhouse effect and global warming.

The production of consumer goods and their distribution to the customer make full use of the latest technological development, while the disposal of the remains is still carried out on stone-age-level. Landfills do not only represent an unproductive land use but also fail to meet the sustainability principle.

In the production and consumption of the myriad of products few seem to care what happens at the end of their utility range. Never before and by no previous society have comparable large amounts of products and such dangerous substances been converted in such a short time into waste. In order to avoid a total waste crisis, the engineering in production must be complemented by an efficient and non-polluting waste management, which aims to minimize waste at the source, in the production process, and transforms the inevitable remaining wastes into relatively harmless substances that can be safely absorbed in soil, water and air.

When considering the costs, decision makers more often than not, focus on the short-term cost of landfills when compared to incineration or waste-to-energy conversion plants. What is frequently omitted is the fact that landfills are effectively permanent facilities, which, unlike incineration or conversion plants, can not be easily after 30-50 years to make room for more advanced technologies or entirely different uses. In fact, while the land used for an incinerator/conversion plant could be sold and used for other purposes, landfills will need to be monitored and maintained for centuries after they close.

The most crucial factor is however, that the costs of damage to the environment, the value of Earth’s natural ecosystems and the services they provide are not fully captured in commercial markets in the way economic services and manufactured commodities are valued. To properly reflect the value of Earth’s ecosystems, additional cost factors should be included in the financial analysis of waste management facilities. For example, landfill costs should be increased to account for the permanent loss of land resources, the exposure of groundwater to leachate, and the atmospheric pollution caused by gas emissions.

Many of the processes and technologies needed to create a circular economy are available today or within reach. What’s lacking is our resolve and determination to change course.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more

A Short History of Solid Waste Management

No question, we are a wasteful species on planet Earth.

The explosive population growth combined with an increasing appetite for consumer goods, has led to an explosion in the amount of garbage we produce. Virtually every aspect of our daily lives generates waste, and it is impossible to think of any man-made process that does not create some waste. The spectrum ranges from refuse produced by all of us in our daily lives, to highly toxic industrial wastes from the production of specialized goods such as cars, electronics computers, cell phones and plastics. What happens to all this waste?

Some is recycled and re-introduced into the production cycle. Some is incinerated, and when this leads to the generation of electricity, useful steam or heat, it can be considered a form of recycling, or more appropriately, a conversion of waste to energy. The remaining waste winds up, as it has over the last three millennia, in a landfill. This basic method of placing garbage in large pits and cover it, at intervals, with layers of earth as remained relatively unchanged.

In Athens (500 B.C.) it was it was the responsibility of each household to taking their garbage to the disposal site located at a minimum of 1.5 kilometers from the city walls.  With the Roman Empire, came the first garbage collection service. People threw their refuse into the streets from where it transported to an open pit, often located within the community, by horse-pulled carts. Centuries with no organized waste collection followed. Land was plentiful and people were few, and so garbage was simply dumped in convenient places and forgotten. By the 1700s, refuse had become a major problem: waste was still dumped in the streets and open burning of garbage was a common practice. And yet, it took another 150 years before scientific reports linking disease to filthy environmental conditions finally helped launch the ‘age of sanitation’.

In the United States, the modern concept of solid waste management first emerged in the 1890s. By the turn of the 20th century, a growing number of American cities provided at least a rudimentary level of solid waste collection and disposal, and around 1930 virtually all cities offered garbage collection services.  Once removed from urban centers, the wastes were disposed of in a variety of ways, including landfills, incineration, water and, ocean disposal. The latter was outlawed 1933, however industrial and commercial wastes were exempted.

The post World War II era led to a significant escalation of the waste management problem for two reasons: consumerism (over-consumption) and the rise of the chemical age, which, together, resulted in dramatic changes in waste volumes, composition and toxicity.

The 1950s also brought us the so-called Sanitary Landfill, typically defined as an engineered method of disposing solid wastes on land by spreading the waste in thin layers, compacting it to the smallest practical volume and covering it with soil at the end of each working day. But despite the new terminology, it remained in essence an earth moving operation.

That only changed in the 1970s and 1980s, when people recognized that landfills were causing significant contamination of groundwater. The problem was compounded by the fact that once groundwater becomes contaminated it is exceedingly difficult to remediate.

As a result, a number of features were added.  Bottom liners made of clays or synthetic materials such as impermeable high-density polyethylene were introduced to stop leachate from leaving the landfill.  Caps made of similar materials were placed over the landfill to decrease the infiltration of precipitation.  In addition, engineered collection systems were installed to capture leachate and gas. Monitoring of groundwater, surface water, and gas emissions became a routine part of landfill operations.

Despite all the improvement we have made to siting and operating landfills, the real problem is simply their large numbers and the expanses of valuable real estate they occupy. All along, landfills have been a child of convenience. Time has come to develop and implement waste management systems that do not impair our environment, use up valuable resources, or place limitations on future resources.

Public involvement is essential.  Wastes are very democratic – they are produced by each and every one of us and so we all should contribute to the solution. The objective must be to minimize the impact on the environment through a combined strategy of reduction/reuse/recycling, and incineration and/or waste to energy conversion. Instead being the first choice, landfills will have to become the last resort.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more