We face real policy challenges because so many people are currently without safe sanitation. Triage is necessary. However, we do see places that are more progressive in their policy structures and progress. It is not surprising that more developed countries often have more supportive policies and regulations in place to reduce the level of water pollution that occurs. Even so, countries with extensive regulatory support still fall short in many cases. This is due to a range of challenges, including existing infrastructure that is expensive to update or replace (e.g., combined sewer overflows), political factors (e.g., rollbacks of existing regulations), and ingrained social systems that create additional complexity. For example, the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD) laid out ambitious goals with a reasonable timeline. However, the absence of the paradigm shift towards “systems thinking” that the WFD was grounded upon has created implementation challenges (Voulvoulis et al., 2017). Because water flows through seemingly everything in our daily lives, a more holistic systems approach must be taken, but can be difficult on larger scales.

Currently, the global priority in this space is to give all people access to safe sanitation. However, as previously stated, approximately 2.5 billion people are without access to improved sanitation. Another 2 billion have unsafe sanitation, i.e., sanitation that it is not hooked up to sewer or septic, and thus discharges into the environment and surface waters. And, because the global community is in a triage mode focused on getting safe sanitation to all, the issue of discharging into the environment is secondary. This is likely due to the current thinking that discharging into coastal waters dilutes and treats any potentially harmful components of human waste that remain after treatment (or in untreated water). This has been the ongoing assumption by decision makers, regulators, and managers. Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that very few have attempted to check that assumption, to ensure that we are not polluting the environment with wastewater discharges.

International goals, laws, and regulations, and effective monitoring, are all critical parts of correcting the course of flawed or missing sanitation policy, which ultimately results in ocean wastewater pollution.