The oceans are so great in volume that overall accumulation of persistent pollutants can only occur very slowly. Organisms have a great capacity to respond to gradual environmental changes by adaptation, acclimatization and evolution. Except where the pollution load is heavy, its effects on marine life are likely mainly to influence the fringes of a species' distribution, where the population is already under environmental stress. In such areas any additional burden may increase mortality.
Despite some scaremongering of impending world catastrophe through oceanic pollution causing the widespread demise of marine life, a reasonable view of the present situation seems to be that these dangers are remote compared with far more imminent threats to human survival arising from our inability to live peaceably together. The oceans do have a capacity to absorb wastes and in some cases may be a much safer place for disposal of certain wastes than storage on land, with the attendant hazards to human populations of contamination of food or freshwater supplies. However, it is important that the effects of waste disposal are looked at in a long-term context and that minimization of waste (see below) should be an ultimate goal.
Although some marine pollutants are remarkably widespread, the immediate dangers of marine pollution tend to be local rather than global, and mostly confined to coastal areas where mixing rates are slower, especially in bays and estuaries. Non-tidal seas such as the Mediterranean and the northern Baltic obviously present special problems as do semi-confined areas such as the North Sea.
Clearly it is necessary to have effective international control of dumping at sea and coastal discharges. Although marine pollution may be mainly a local problem, it does not necessarily stay in one place. All potential sources of pollution must be identified, all coastal areas at risk regularly monitored. Because there are increasing pressures to pollute, continuous and increasing watchfulness and powers for protection are essential. Dangers of pollution by shipwreck and collision must obviously be reduced as far as possible by all feasible safety measures. For example, keeping easily accessible and accurate cargo manifests for dangerous or obnoxious materials, to enable appropriate action to be taken immediately in case of spillage.
Control of pollution often involves conflicts of interests. The requirements of industries to discharge effluents into estuaries may be opposed by those working in local fisheries. The advantages of cheap sewage disposal may be offset by damage to holiday trades. It is therefore sensible that regulations determining the use of inshore waters for the discharge of pollutants should be largely a matter of local responsibility exercised with proper regard to effects elsewhere, rather than of general controls which may be inappropriate in particular localities. Adequate powers of monitoring and enforcement must be provided.
In all matters of waste disposal the question must be asked: to what extent can wastes be put to good use? Waste not, want not. Some materials can be economically recycled. Spoil, rubble and rubbish can sometimes be used to raise land levels for reclamation. Sewage contains valuable fertilizers. Waste heat is an anomaly in an age facing an energy crisis. The term 'waste' is inaptly applied to anything for which some other useful application could be found.
Waste minimization and reduction of pollution at source should be the ultimate goal. Such techniques will only ever be widely adopted if industry can see concrete advantages. In recent years in UK there have been several waste minimization demonstration projects involving local industries. In most cases, the industry concerned found increased business efficiency, lowered costs due to conservation of raw materials and reduced costs and safety risks associated with storage and handling of waste (Earll, 1995).
Future generations will judge this period to have been an Age of Waste. The earth's resources of energy and useful materials are being rapidly consumed and dispersed, often for trivial or destructive purposes, with remarkably little forethought.
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