March 18, 2024
Ocean Sewage Alliance

The Ocean Is Not a Landfill: 4 Takeaways From The World Ocean Summit & Expo

From insightful sessions on plastic waste to the critical importance of ocean storytelling, OSA gleaned valuable insights to inform its mission of safeguarding marine ecosystems and promoting sustainable practices.

Estimated read time: 3 minutes

The Ocean Sewage Alliance (OSA) team just returned from an eventful and packed week at the Economist Impact World Ocean Summit and Expo. Jasmine Fournier, executive director, Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, steering committee chair, and Larissa Balzer, senior network coordinator, represented OSA across several events including the summit’s new ‘How-To’ sessions. One thing was salient from these events: the scope and urgency of sewage and wastewater pollution needs to be broadcast and elevated. 

Alongside the urgency to address sewage and wastewater pollution, here’s a recount of four pivotal takeaways we brought back: plastics, ocean acidification, storytelling, and the need for better data. 

The OSA poop costume traveled 5,679 miles to make an unforgettable appearance at World Ocean Summit & Expo.
L to R: Larissa Balzer, OSA; Martin Koehring, Forum for the Future, Dr. Folayinka Dania, Lagos; Dr. Amelia Wenger, Wildlife Conservation Society; Alberto Pierotti, Running Tide; Jasmine Fournier, OSA. © Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, OSA

1. Colonization of Waste

Recognizing the colonization of waste unveils a stark reality of environmental inequity, where the global north offloads its burden of plastic and other solid waste onto the global south. This practice perpetuates a cycle of exploitation, as affluent nations export their waste to less economically developed regions, often with inadequate infrastructure to manage it. 

The consequences are dire, with communities in the global south bearing the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation. From contaminated waterways to overflowing landfills, the colonization of waste exacerbates existing inequalities and underscores the urgent need for global cooperation to address this systemic injustice.

2. There is no Green without the Blue

Ocean acidification poses a significant threat to blue economies, which rely on the health and productivity of marine ecosystems for economic sustenance. As highlighted by Dr. Amelia Wenger with our partners at Wildlife Conservation Society, sewage and wastewater pollution exacerbate this threat by undermining carbon initiatives in critical marine habitats such as corals, mangroves, seagrasses, and kelp forests. The traditional approach of simply upgrading toilets falls short in addressing this complex issue. 

Underscoring this point, Dr. Folayinka Dania, chief resilience officer of Lagos, noted during OSA’s ‘how-to’ panel session, that less than 5% of Lagos homes are connected to a sewer or sanitation system and instead send sewage waste directly into local waterways. In Lagos, with a population of 17 million people, this leaves many residents drinking from cisterns that are contaminated with feces. 

Dr. Dania and Dr. Wenger lead a table discussion during the How-to take action against ocean pollution from sewage and wastewater session. © Stewart Sarkozy Banoczy, OSA

3. Crafting a New Narrative

Ocean storytelling plays a crucial role in shaping public perceptions and driving action towards conservation and sustainability. As we strive to integrate conservation and sanitation efforts to mitigate pollution impacts and transition to circular economies, storytelling becomes a powerful tool for reframing the narrative surrounding the ocean. 

By shifting the focus from doom-and-gloom destruction to sustainable and profitable opportunities, we can inspire individuals, communities, and policymakers to embrace innovative solutions that safeguard marine ecosystems while fostering economic equality. Through compelling narratives that highlight success stories and transformative initiatives, we can galvanize support for collective action towards a healthier and more resilient ocean environment.

4. We Can’t Manage What We Don’t Measure

Good data is the cornerstone of effective ocean conservation efforts, particularly in the context of addressing climate change and eliminating sewage and wastewater pollution. Alberto Pierotti, with our partners at Running Tide, emphasized the importance of capturing and quantifying carbon dioxide recovery and removal (CDR) to understand its impact on ocean health. 

He underscored the necessity of comprehensive monitoring and valuation of data to track the movement of pollution and contaminants through deep water currents. Pierotti advocates for the establishment of a global database to catalog measurements, enabling researchers and policymakers to make informed decisions and implement targeted solutions to safeguard marine ecosystems.

Stewart Sarkozy Banoczy, representing OSA and World Ocean Council, facilitates a panel on plastics production reduction discussing market-based mechanisms and the need for legally binding commitments. © Larissa Balzer, OSA

Additionally, the summit marked the beginnings of the ‘cost of inaction’ project, a joint effort of OSA and the Economist Impact. With this study, we plan an ambitious and rigorous research endeavor to analyze the economic impact of sewage and wastewater pollution and the downstream impacts of inaction. This study will bring together partners and researchers across our alliance to build a robust economic case for wastewater management and investment globally, as a strategic priority. We plan to release the findings of this study at the World Ocean Summit in 2025.

Our participation in the Economist Impact World Ocean Summit and Expo was both enlightening and invigorating, underscoring the urgency of addressing sewage and wastewater pollution on a global scale. As we reflect on our key takeaways—plastics, ocean acidification, storytelling, and the need for better data—we are reminded of the interconnectedness of environmental issues and the imperative for collective action. 

Moving forward, OSA remains committed to advancing these critical initiatives, including examining the 'cost of inaction', as we work towards a healthier and more sustainable future for our ocean.