Humankind produces a large variety of wastes that are introduced into the environment either by accident or by design.
These may include human excrement, agricultural wastes, energy and manufacturing wastes, industrial and consumer chemical products, medical and veterinary products, and transportation emissions, but may also include natural components of the environment.
In the ocean, natural functioning of ecosystems have the ability to process and detoxify a large number of these waste products and so avoid harmful effects on human wellbeing and the environment. These processes are hugely valuable to us, not simply in their ability to purify waste, but also other additional ‘ecosystem services’ beneficial to humans. These include food security, raw materials, recreational amenity, shoreline protection and sequestration of carbon.
However despite its importance, to date the capability of the marine environment to manage waste has been poorly defined and is rarely valued or measured.
Now, PML scientists have led a review to address this, which is the first of its kind focusing on valuing this service provided by the ocean.
The main aim of this review was to highlight the importance of natural oceanic processing of waste for human well-being on both a local and global scale, and create a foundation for decisions regarding the discharge of waste into the marine environment.
By understanding how areas of the ocean remediate waste we can also understand the extent of its capabilities, so as to avoid overloading marine ecosystems with this waste, which could potentially damage both biodiversity and function. This knowledge is vital to safeguarding the many organisms that inhabit these ecosystems.
Mismanagement or neglect of waste management in the sea could also lead to impairment of human health and economic losses, so informing judgements on the discharge of waste into the sea is crucial for future policy decisions.
Furthermore, as scientists are currently unsure whether the intrinsic waste detoxification capability of the Earth will increase or decrease under future climate change scenarios, it is particularly important that the value of waste management in the ocean is appreciated fully in future planning and policy.