How the ocean became a universal rubbish dump

BY Helen Czerski

27th Jun 2023 Environment

How the ocean became a universal rubbish dump

Author Helen Czerski explores how we turned the ocean into a universal rubbish dump, and what we can do about it now

Stories of the Victorian era often paint a picture of a society that did nothing by halves: there was the Great Exhibition of 1851, the tragic Great Famine in Ireland (1845–1852), and the century-long Great Game (the tussle between the British and Russian empires for influence in Asia). But it was the Great Stink of 1858 whose legacy still touches, in an intimate way, people alive today.

How the ocean became our rubbish bin

London was built around the Thames, which in addition to being a gateway to the ocean and therefore the rest of the world, was also a convenient waste disposal system. The life of the city was built around leather tanneries, abattoirs, food markets, distillers and more. The dross produced by them all, along with the human waste produced by three million Londoners, trickled, slithered or was dumped into the Thames. 

By the 1850s, the Thames was overwhelmed and had turned into an open sewer. Bickering over the costs of fixing things was constant but ineffective until the hot dry summer of 1858, when the overpowering stench of the river’s heavy burden forced MPs to take action.

Satirical illustration "Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water" William Heath, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Satirical illustration from 1828. "Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water." William Heath, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The solution was staggeringly ambitious: a gigantic sewer system, built by the engineer Joseph Bazelgette, which included 82 miles of mains sewers and 1,100 miles of street sewers. It took 15 years to complete, and from the point of view of Londoners, it was a brilliant success.

But it never actually solved the problem. It just moved it several miles downstream to where the tide could take it out to sea. The entire premise of this apparently great engineering solution was that the ocean was a place called “away”, and you could send things there when you just wanted them gone, never to be seen in your life again. 

"Our attitude to the ocean hasn’t really changed—we still see it as a universal rubbish dump"

It didn’t take long for the folly of this attitude to be revealed. In 1878, a paddle steamer called the Princess Alice sank after a collision right at the point where the transported sewage was released back into the water, and the filth was widely considered an important contributor to the huge death toll.

These pipes are still the backbone of London’s sewer system today, although the effluent is now treated before being discharged. But our attitude to the ocean hasn’t really changed—we still see it as a universal rubbish dump, for chemical pollutants, plastic, agricultural run-off and far more. Our cultural perception is that it’s just an empty place that’s waiting for humans to give it a purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

So, what now?

We now know that Earth’s liquid ocean is a sophisticated engine, with its own internal anatomy and physiology. Water has different characteristics in different places, and these components slide over each other or swirl together, moving heat, nutrients and life around the planet. 

They set the scene for what happens on land—for example, the great fisheries down the coast of Chile and around Iceland aren’t there just because that’s where humans happened to choose to look for fish. They’re there because the giant ocean engine has delivered extremely fertile conditions for life, in different ways in both cases. Other ocean areas are the equivalent of deserts, because of the ocean physics and chemistry that controls what’s possible.

Rubbish in the ocean

Even today we still dump waste in the ocean

The ocean also dictates our agriculture, trade routes, weather and far more. This great engine is intimately connected to the life up here on land, even though we barely notice its influence. It certainly isn’t “away”. It’s a critical support of our planetary life support system, deeply woven into so many parts of our lives that we just take it for granted.

So what of the future? I think that we can and will stop treating the ocean like a rubbish dump as we learn to look at it properly and really appreciate how much we depend on its intricacies. Dumping anything in the ocean is a symptom of failing to manage our systems on land, and such failures should be treated with the shame and the correction that they deserve.

"We just have to see ourselves as citizens of an ocean planet and act accordingly"

But more than anything else, the thing that gives me optimism is that once you start looking at the ocean properly—at its physical nature, rather than just at whales and fish and plastic—it’s impossible not to be amazed. Once we can visualise our many connections to this amazing blue machine, it will become far easier to reduce carbon emissions, to manage our plastic waste, to avoid eating unsustainably harvested fish, and to avoid dumping sewage and everything else into it. 

We already know what to do, and it all comes down to the same thing. We have to look at how nature’s sophisticated systems already work, and build our infrastructure and our lives to fit within those vast natural cycles, rather than continually battling against them. It’s going to be a much more streamlined and fulfilling way to live, and we don’t have to give up anything essential to get there. We just have to see ourselves as citizens of an ocean planet and act accordingly. 

Blue Machine by Helen Czerski

Blue Machine by Helen Czerski (Transworld) is out now. Buy it here.

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