Trash and chemicals continue to contaminate the world’s oceans, affecting the oceanic ecosystem, humans and wildlife, and resulting in deadly consequences. Human activity causes the majority of the pollutants found in the sea.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80% of pollution in the ocean comes from the land. Every day, wildlife mistake pollutant debris for food and ingest toxic waste, leading some species to extinction.
“We have to get better about the waste that we generate on land and live more simply,” said Michelle Giron, chair of the Surfrider Foundation of Newport Beach. “We have to use less and make sure that trash doesn't get to the water.”
When rain or snow moves over, and through the ground, the water picks up and carries away pollutants into the nearest water body resulting in non-point pollution.
For example, following a rainstorm, water will flow across a parking lot and pick up the oil left by cars before making its way into nearby storm drains.
Non-point pollutants are the most significant pollution source affecting the ocean, and can be challenging to control.
“Wash your car on the lawn or use types of detergents that are low phosphate-based,” said Robert Ellis, associate professor of Marine Science at Orange Coast College. “These are things that can make a difference.”
Plastic is a common non-point source pollutant, and limiting the use of single-use plastics will help decrease the amount that ends up in the ocean.
“Plastics make a lot of things possible for us, but we're using them in ways that are just not smart,” Giron said. “If you're using it for 10 minutes, it's not a good use of plastic.”
Non-point source pollutants can be hard to identify compared to point source pollutants.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, point-source pollution is “any single identifiable source of pollution from which pollutants are discharged, such as a pipe, ditch, ship or factory smokestack.”
Point-source pollution can have significant impacts, and luckily, occurs less often.
For example, near the coast of Catalina Island is a dumpsite of DDT barrels. The EPA banned the insecticide in 1972 due to the effects DDT posed for wildlife and human health, such as liver tumors.
“They dumped a huge amount of DDT in the channel,” Ellis said. “These pollution issues aren't things that just dilute and go away.”
Typically factories and sewage plants will treat waste before releasing it into waterways, but sometimes untreated waste can make its way into a waterbody.
For instance, during an excessive rain, a sewer system may not be able handle the volume of water, and can lead to raw sewage overflowing from the system, discharging pollutants directly into the nearest water body without being treated.
“That happens in Orange County where sewage waste ends up in the water, and we have to shut down beaches,” Giron said.
When it rains excessively, some sewer systems may not have the ability to handle large amounts of water and could lead raw sewage to overflow from the system, releasing untreated waste directly into the nearest water body causing water pollution.
Some of the chemicals discharged by point sources are harmless, but others are toxic to people and wildlife, and can have detrimental effects.
“These aren't things that happen every day, but they're all potential aspects of pollution,” said Ellis.
Factories, including pulp and paper mills, oil refineries, and automobile manufacturers, contribute to point source pollution.
Whether people live far inland or near the coast, humans are a part of the problem and a potential part of the solution to ocean pollution. Although it may seem impossible, there are small ways to help restore the world’s oceans.
“My advice to students is to start small, start locally on a project that you feel like you can make a difference from, and then work up from there,” Ellis said. “It could be everything from doing simple beach cleanups to educating yourself about local issues and problems that are going on.”
Participation in local governance and different organizations, such as city council meetings or the California Coastal Commission, can help reduce pollution.
“If you're concerned about the environment, don't overwhelm yourself, and try to change your entire lifestyle because ultimately, that's not going to work,” Ellis said. “Start local, start small, educate yourself, get involved in a couple of local organizations and then if you feel you can contribute more, do more.”