Ocean pollution is a defining crisis of the twenty-first century. Considering even only the last decade, disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—one that leaked more than 200 million gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, have already caused irreparable damage to our biosphere. Additionally, the millions of tons of trash, oil, fertilizer, sewage, and toxic chemicals that enter the ocean every year only exacerbate this burgeoning problem. Though humanity has prided itself on its mastery of land, our uncontrolled dumping has caused beaches and coastlines to also fill with waste, killing plants and animals in some of the world’s most ecologically productive regions.
It was from the oceans that eukaryotic life first emerged, and even today microorganisms such as phytoplankton and cyanobacteria produce the lion’s share of the world’s biomass and oxygen. The slow death of aquatic environments from unbridled pollution will inevitably lead to the extinction of life in every corner of the world, not only those in the oceans.
In short, this crisis is an issue that has encroached on every aspect of human life, and unless world-reaching solutions such as the Paris Climate Accords are taken seriously, it can very well lead to the end of human civilization as we know it. To further explore the issue, it is crucial to understand the source, cause, and possible solutions to the crisis. Before specific, actionable solutions can be taken, we as a species must examine the historical context of maritime ecological decay, the role of polymer materials in exacerbating the issue, the economic implications of solving the issue, and the extent of government’s role in containing the crisis.
Since the rise of human civilization, societies the world over have found their beginnings in river valleys. From the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia to the Yellow River in China, rivers have served as the backbone of all human activity. Rivers were the source of all life as they provided fresh water for farmland and livestock, but as technology progressed, they also served as the artery of industrial infrastructure. By the nineteenth century, rivers such as the Thames were crucial to the transportation of both goods and waste. Though the notion of dumping human sewage into drinking water is absurd today, it had been seen as a viable option since it eventually dumped into the ocean—a seemingly infinite body of water whose carrying capacity was limitless. This idea of the ocean pervaded the twentieth century, and it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the world realized its mistake. Today, approximately eighty percent of marine pollution ultimately originates on land as a direct result of human activity. A prime example of this is the Yangtze River in Central China. Though it still holds the title of most economically productive river on earth, the ships that float atop it no longer carry grain and silk. Instead, massive container ships now tow electronics, plastics, and an alphabet soup of derived chemicals from the country’s industrial heart in Chongqing and Sichuan to the Port of Shanghai at its delta. Though these ships carry the products that make the world run, their engines also burn immense amounts of bunker fuel, a literal “bottom of the barrel” substance so vicious and sulfur-rich that it more closely resembles tar than gasoline. But ships are not even the largest source of this waste. Agriculture, humanity’s greatest innovation, has also worked against us. For instance, when large tracts of land are plowed, the exposed soil can erode during rainstorms. Much of this runoff flows to the sea, carrying with it agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. Oil spills are the release of a liquid petroleum into the environment, mainly the marine ecosystem, and is a form of pollution. The term “oil spill” is usually given to marine oil spills, some oil spills occur on land but mainly in the ocean because that is where most oil is dredged from.