Wastewater pollution has been part of life since human populations expanded, and people started living in close proximity to each other. Likewise, ocean dumping is an age-old problem, because the ocean seems vast and limitless, and capable of absorbing whatever we need to dispose. Why is ocean wastewater pollution a problem that needs to be urgently addressed now? The answer is that it should have been addressed long ago; and while the impact has always been there, the extent of the impact has multiplied as our coastal populations have increased. We have a global sanitation crisis giving rise to the need to address this very human problem of better managing and treating human waste. Innovation is happening in this space, and the marketplace is beginning to see and capture the value of human waste. Addressing wastewater pollution, and how we manage and treat waste, presents an opportunity to create multiple benefits for both people and the environment, with the same effort.
Understanding that human waste can be a valuable resource is critical to developing appropriate solutions that benefit both people and nature. Solutions, such as those catalyzed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Reinvent the Toilet Initiative, are beginning to make their way into communities. These new technology solutions are being adapted to meet the needs of people and modified for increased function, efficiency, and greater benefits. The initiative’s specific requirements of this new toilet tech includes that the toilets do not pollute, and that they generate benefits through producing a valuable resource such as fertilizer, energy, or drinking water. These criteria are great news for those working in the ocean space, as they limit pollution, and provide other resources that otherwise tax what natural resources we have left. As the value of human “waste” is better understood and fully realized, there is an opportunity for those working in the environmental space to capitalize on this understanding, as well as the new technology. While these technological developments are exciting, and good for people in developing areas, they are only the beginning of what needs to be a bigger effort to reduce wastewater pollution in the environment.
Because the global sanitation crisis is largely seen as a problem of the poor, we miss the fact that the developed world is fraught with challenges around wastewater management and treatment. With systems designed to pollute whenever it rains, coupled with aging infrastructure and outdated technology, the developed world must also pay attention, and encourage innovation.
Now more than ever, there is an opportunity to address the infrastructure needs in both developed and developing countries. With a new emphasis on coastal resilience, and concerns around climate adaptation increasing, now is the time to make sure that improvements around wastewater treatment and management are included in efforts to ensure coastal security. The environmental sector has both an interest in solutions that promote coastal resilience, and shoreline protection. Green infrastructure (e.g., constructed wetlands) can provide natural solutions in some situations, but grey infrastructure (e.g., treatment plants) is also a critical piece of the equation. Also, calls for improvements and upgrades from the environmental sector will be important. Finding the balance between green and grey infrastructure is important when considering solutions.
Working across sectors to solve these challenges is essential. The stakeholder space is complex, with a range of expertise needed to solve a problem of this scale. We review the key players in another section to help better understand the roles and opportunities for each sector (see Cross-Sector Collaboration). Given the value of human waste, the opportunity to remove “waste” from the term “wastewater” is more likely now than ever. Not only are funds becoming available to improve sanitation, reduce pollution, and increase human well-being, we can also create value, and even fund the costs of these efforts, by capturing resources and realizing the value around human waste (see Resource Recovery).