- What is your mission? We are a diverse collective of organizations and scientists committed to reducing the threat of ocean wastewater pollution and increasing the health and well-being of both humans and nature.
- Why did you feel the need to form an alliance? The Ocean Sewage Alliance was developed organically by individuals who are passionate about the ocean wastewater pollution problem and saw a need to collaborate across sectors and more actively address the threat to both people and oceans. From 2019 to 2021, this group held a series of workshops to engage with a diverse range of representatives from various sectors and to establish the Alliance’s mission and strategy.
- How are you funded? We operate solely on charitable donations, grants and in-kind contributions.
- Are you a 501(c)(3) nonprofit? No, we’re a coalition of organizations and academic partners — the Ocean Sewage Alliance is a project of Multiplier, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that helps protect and foster a healthy, sustainable, resilient, and equitable world. If you would like to make a charitable contribution, donations are tax-deductible through our fiscal sponsor.
- Why do you have a fiscal sponsorship? In developing the OSA, we selected our fiscal sponsor, Multiplier, to serve as an independent and neutral party who manages our finances in alignment with our mission, supports our strategic vision, and ensures inclusive and equitable representation of all partners.
- Do you have ties to corporate interests? We do not have any affiliations with corporate interests.
- Are you an activist organization? No, as a project of a 501(c)(3) organization, we are not engaged in any advocacy or lobbying. Instead we are focused on cross-sector collaboration, synthesis and sharing of knowledge, developing solutions, raising awareness, and promoting actions that address wastewater pollution.
- Are donations tax-deductible? All contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law and are credited to the Ocean Sewage Alliance. The tax-payer identification number is 91-2166435.
- Do you accept donations from outside the United States? Yes!
- Where does the money from donations go? Donations are collected by the fundraising platform Flipcause and managed by our fiscal sponsor Multiplier. Donations keep our organization running (e.g., staffing and website management) and are distributed among our projects. We operate with low overhead with 90% of your donation going directly to the activities of the Ocean Sewage Alliance.
- Are there any criteria for becoming a partner? Partners are individuals or organizations who are actively participating in furthering the goals of the Ocean Sewage Alliance. This includes engaging internally in Alliance working groups, as well as working externally on relevant projects as an individual or organization, such as raising awareness, developing resources, and implementing solutions.
- Is there a fee to join? Not at this time. We understand that each of our partners come from varying circumstances, such as differing organizational size and budget — we do not want to create any financial barrier to entry for engagement. Therefore, contributions are based on a sliding scale, with both monetary support and in-kind services much appreciated and valued.
- What are the benefits of becoming a partner? Becoming a partner means you join an active community that encourages engaging and collaborating across projects and organizations. For such a relatively unknown and poorly understood threat as wastewater pollution, it benefits to have a network of experts across sectors and disciplines to collectively define the problem and develop integrative approaches to solve it. The Ocean Sewage Alliance facilitates collaboration and opportunities for strategic co-funding.
- Is it possible to share information (a research paper, a project, a news story) that is relevant to the Ocean Sewage Alliance? Absolutely! Raising awareness and sharing knowledge is part of our core philosophy. We love showcasing the work of our partners and individuals on the ground on our website. Please send suggestions to email@example.com!
- Where is a good starting point for learning about ocean wastewater pollution? We just released A Practitioner’s Guide to Ocean Wastewater Pollution (link here) in August 2021 — it's an in-depth exploration of the problem and solutions. Down the pipeline, we expect to develop OSA webinars, curriculum plans, and audience and sector-specific briefs, so be on the lookout! We also highly recommend taking a look at the Wastewater Pollution Toolkit developed by our partner, the Reef Resilience Network. It provides an array of monitoring, management, and collaboration strategies to help marine managers address threats to reefs and people.
Going Deeper into the Nerdy, Dirty Facts
- What is in our sewage? If only this were a simple answer — like poop and pee. But it is much more than that. Sewage (and other types of domestic wastewater) is a toxic cocktail of pollutants. Common components include excess nitrogen and phosphorus (poop and pee), pharmaceuticals, PCBs, personal care products, microplastics, endocrine disruptors, pathogens, heavy metals… it just depends on where you are and what goes down your toilet or drain. Each of these components has a range of negative effects on the environment,wildlife, and our own health.
- I’m confused by all the terminology. Is there a difference between sewage, fecal sludge, and wastewater? It can be confusing, especially since these terms can have different meanings in different fields and sectors. Wastewater encapsulates all waters contaminated by human use — that includes sewage, a term that is commonly used by the general public to describe wastewater that contains human waste. However, it’s important to remember that sewage is actually specific to sanitation systems that transport human waste using conduits of water — sewered systems. We must consider that there are many decentralized treatment methods that are non-sewered, such as septic tanks and pit latrines, which treat fecal sludge and wastewater on the spot. Fecal sludge is distinguished by not requiring transportation for treatment. Another important point to remember is that it’s common for treatment systems to combine different wastewater types. For example, you may think a combined sewer overflow (CSO) only treats sewage, but in fact, CSOs treat a mix of stormwater, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater.
- Where is the problem? Everywhere. This is a problem that impacts most places (with people!) around the world. The degree to which local populations and the environment experience this threat varies. In some places, the threat to human health is severe, especially in locations lacking in safe water and adequate sanitation, where populations are frequently exposed to untreated human waste. However, just because toilets and even sewered sanitation systems are in place, that doesn’t mean wastewater pollution is eliminated. In fact, there are 860 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer overflow systems (CSOs) that discharge a mix of sewage and stormwater whenever rainfall overwhelms the treatment plant’s capacity. New York City discharges about 27 billion gallons of wastewater every year into the Hudson River Basin via its CSO system. In addition to this, aging sewer pipes leak and septic systems fail. But, we must acknowledge that having some treatment in place is better than no treatment.
- What are the biggest causes of ocean wastewater pollution today? The major causes include lack of proper and safe sanitation worldwide, illegal dumping, lack of or unenforced maintenance of treatment systems, spills and leaks from aging infrastructure, overburdened wastewater treatment plants, the inability of older systems to treat novel contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), and exacerbation from climate change.
- What kind of impacts does sewage have on coastal habitats and populations? Sewage can degrade crucial coastal habitats, such as salt marshes, mangroves, and coral reefs, with severe impacts to the local biodiversity and ecological resilience. For example, scientists have directly traced the origins of a coral-killing pathogen Serratia marcescens (which is a human pathogen) to human sewage. Additionally, ecological functions and stability are critical when we think about the ripple effects felt by coastal communities who rely on ecosystem services and natural resources for food security, climate resilience, and their livelihoods.
- What is the best treatment solution? There is no silver bullet when it comes to the best wastewater treatment system. The best system depends on the profile of the city, neighborhood, home, etc., the capacity of the responsible entity, and any parameters set by the regulatory and legal framework. Some specific factors include number of people served, population density, space for treatment, cost, ability to maintain over time, geological and hydrological characteristics, climate, and social and cultural norms. Does the location have a sanitation system, and if so, where is it in its lifecycle and can it be refurbished? It's complicated. Working with experts to make these determinations is the best way to go. (See what we did there?) Solutions could be centralized or decentralized, sewered or non-sewered — it’s completely context-specific! All in all, we’re excited by the advancements and innovations in the solution space. For example, some treatment solutions reduce risks to human health and the environment while creating added benefits, like providing a valuable resource (fuel, fertilizer, water) or creating habitat (like constructed wetlands).
- Are your videos telling us it’s safe to consume human waste and make our own fertilizer? Nope. Our videos highlight just one of the many incredible solution sets: resource recovery that properly treats human excrement (i.e., poop and pee) to create renewable energy, potable water, and fertilizer. Although we understand some may be interested in DIY-💩 projects, it’s best to defer to sanitation experts (unless you are one!) to prevent downstream effects and ensure safety for all. Ensuring safe treatment and handling prevents things like pathogens, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, microplastics, and other household products and toxins from making it into the end product (e.g., fertilizer or water). In the future, we also will be discussing nature-based solutions and improvements to existing treatment systems as other important ways to address the pollution challenge.
- Why are you talking about turning poop into anything? Why fuel and fertilizer? What good will that do? Can’t it be harmful? Poop and pee are actually really valuable resources that are not being put to use and are instead polluting our environment. Why not stop pollution while also taking advantage of that value? We are flushing a value of $10 billion (2020 USD) down the drain every year. Say what? (Not to mention the COST of the pollution!) The poop of 1 billion people could produce $400 million in methane annually — enough gas to power 10 to 18 million households or enough to produce 85 million tons of charcoal equivalent for industrial use.
- Drinking water that was once wastewater sounds really gross — do people even do that? Won’t it make me sick? We get that this could take some getting used to. But remember: all the water on the Earth is all the water that has ever been here. It is all part of one great big water cycle. If you think long and hard about it, you will realize that the water molecules you are drinking could have once been dinosaur tears or could have filled the cup of Egyptian pharaohs — just imagine the possibilities. (HINT: ALL OF THE WATER YOU DRINK IS ACTUALLY RECYCLED.) We are all connected through water and it is kind of a wonderful (okay, REALLY wonderful) thing! Water IS life. So as long as it is thoroughly and properly treated — and fortunately smart people have figured this out already — it is perfectly safe and you will never know the difference. People are doing this all over the world. Here is a map of the places where people are already recycling their wastewater to become drinking water. (You will note many of them are in the United States.)
- Isn’t sanitation pretty much a public health issue? Why are other sectors getting involved? Safe sanitation has co-benefits that extend far beyond the realm of public health, including direct ecosystem protection and pollution prevention. It’s time we celebrate the toilet, which the UN aptly described as “a life-saver, dignity-provider, and opportunity-maker.” By thinking about safe sanitation, we can reduce the 1.6 million annual deaths from diarrheal disease associated with unsafe sanitation, we can help girls stay in school when they begin their periods, and we can uplift marginalized and disadvantaged communities to lead healthier, safer lives. By promoting public health, we are also promoting ecological and environmental health downstream.
- I’ve heard that human waste has contaminants that are not easily treated, such as PFAS and pharmaceuticals. How do you account for that in resource recovery? It is true that many conventional wastewater plants rely on treatment processes that are not capable of treating contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). Part of the Alliance’s goal is to promote advancements in sanitation technologies so we can responsibly and safely harness human waste as a resource. Additionally, we can raise awareness and promote individual accountability, starting in the home. We can provide information on how to properly dispose of unwanted items, rather than dump them in the sink or flush them down the toilet. We can explain how personal care products (like shampoos and soaps) have long-term impacts on public and environmental health.
- Aren’t excess nutrients in waste bad for the environment and can cause harmful algal blooms? Is it truly eco-friendly to use 💩 as a fertilizer ingredient? A treated-💩 fertilizer will actually lessen the occurrence of harmful algal blooms (HABs) by reducing the amount of nutrients directly entering the ocean. We can facilitate the Earth’s natural processes by extracting nutrients during the treatment process and relocating them to land for uptake by plants. This is a closed loop system that helps grow food and can help reduce usage of industrial fertilizers (which contain additional novel chemicals that negatively affect the environment and can even emit greenhouse gases). And given that phosphorus is a limited resource (that we need to grow food!), it is pretty smart to capture it and use it again instead of it becoming a trouble-maker in our coastal waters.
- Are nature-based solutions a pipe dream (ha! — pun-intended)? Or are they being used already? Nature-based solutions (NBS) can and do protect, manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems. They are already being used all over the world as a more cost effective solution to the problem of wastewater management. Waste stabilization ponds, anaerobic reactors, activated sludge and aerobic biofilms, algal turf scrubbers, and constructed wetlands are just some of the management solutions that are in fact a win-win for nature and for human health and well-being. We can even integrate nature-based solutions with engineered treatment to allow resource recovery. Constructed wetlands and other types of blue-green infrastructure provide other co-benefits, by providing aesthetic value, connecting fragmented habitats, and contributing to a local community’s awareness and investment in proper wastewater management. As each solution is context-specific, we need to promote and use nature-based solutions where and when appropriate.
- Is the OSA developing treatment technologies? While the OSA is not developing tech solutions, there may be cases where our partners are, and if so, we will be doing our best to learn from what they are doing. We are focused on raising awareness, maintaining our Knowledge Hub, and making a strong case for action more broadly. We want to promote the most appropriate solutions and technologies for local circumstances by integrating a Customer-Aided Design approach.
- Is the OSA endorsing or promoting any specific technologies? No. We understand that there are many ways to solve this problem, including technological innovations, and are very curious about all the ways humans are coming up with to solve it. We love to share ideas and the experiences of others in order to inspire others to take action — whether it is to develop their own solution or adapt someone else’s. We are basically ocean-friendly sanitation nerds and want to learn and share along with you.
- Is your focus on technology solutions? No — while technology is essential to advancing our goals, it’s not the only “solution”. Solving this problem is complex and relies upon understanding a complex suite of factors — but probably most important is understanding what drives people to change their behavior. Our aim is to catalyze systemic change by creating bridges and forming critical linkages across seemingly disparate sectors and realms, such as sanitation, development, public health, social justice, conservation, and environmental resilience. We want to pave the way for sustainable, alternative pathways. So if we are geeks about anything, it is probably the science of behavior change (ok, and maybe a few other things too).
- What can I do to support your efforts to mitigate wastewater pollution? There are many ways you can support our work! You can 1) join the OSA as a member or partner, 2) educate yourself on the problem, 3) break the taboo and talk about it, 4) rethink what goes down the drain, 5) keep an eye out for policies and laws that improve our wastewater infrastructure, and 6) donate to the OSA!