Waste smothering our oceans is worth billions – here’s what we can do with all that sh$t
There’s hardly a person out there who hasn’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That type of pollution is impossible to miss. It stares you in the face from pictures and videos of sea turtles with drinking straws up their noses and acres of plastic swirling in the sea.
It demands you to solve the problem—and it works. The campaign to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans has resulted in new policies, including bans on microplastics in personal care products, technology to clean up the plastic, and even new plastic-like materials that are better for the environment.
But there’s a different type of pollution smothering the ocean as you read this. Unfortunately, this one is almost invisible, but no less damaging. In fact, it’s even more serious than plastic and most people have no idea it even exists. It is literally under our noses, destroying our oceans, lakes, and rivers – and yet we are missing it completely while contributing to it daily. In fact, we exacerbate it multiple times a day—every time we use the bathroom.
It is the way we do our sewage.
Most of us don’t think much about what happens after we flush the toilet. Most of us probably assume that the substances we flush go “somewhere” and are dealt with safely. But we typically don’t think about it beyond that.
Most of us also probably don’t think about what’s in the ocean or lakes we swim in. Since others are swimming, jumping in is just fine. But our waterways are far from clean. In fact, at times they are incredibly filthy. In the US, we are dumping 1.2 trillion of gallons of untreated sewage into the environment every year. Just New York City alone discharges 27 billion gallons into the Hudson River basin annually.
How does this happen? Part of it is the unfortunate side effect of our sewage system design that dates back to over a century ago when cities were smaller and fewer people were living so close together.
Back then, engineers designed the so-called “combine sewer overflow systems,” or CSOs, in which the storm water pipes are connected to the sanitary sewer pipes. In normal conditions, the sewage effluent from homes flows to the treatment plants where it gets cleaned and released into the waterways. But when it rains, the pipe system becomes so overwhelmed with water that the treatment plant can’t process it fast enough. So the treatment plant has to release the excess water through its discharge pipes—directly, without treatment, into streams, rivers and the ocean.
The 1.2 trillion gallons of CSO releases isn’t even the full picture. There are also discharges from poorly maintained septic systems, cesspools and busted pipes of the aging wastewater infrastructure. The state of Hawaii alone has 88,000 cesspools that need replacing and are currently leaking 53 million gallons of raw sewage daily into their coastal waters. You may think twice about swimming on your Hawaii vacations.
Overall, the US is facing a $271 billion backlog in wastewater infrastructure projects to update these aging systems. Across the Western world, countries are facing similar challenges with their aging sewage systems, especially the UK and European Union.
That’s not to say that other parts of the planet are in better shape. Out of the 7+ billion people populating our earth, 4.2 billion don’t have access to safe sanitation. Included in this insane number are roughly 2 billion people who have no toilet at all. Whether washed by rains or dumped directly into the waterways, a lot of this sludge pollutes the environment, the drinking water, and ultimately the ocean.
Pipes pour water onto a rocky shore in Jakarta, Indonesia.
What complicates this from an ocean health perspective is that it’s not just poop and pee that gets dumped into nearby waterways. It is all the things we put in and on our bodies and flush down our drains. That vicious mix of chemicals includes caffeine, antibiotics, antidepressants, painkillers, hormones, microplastics, cocaine, cooking oils, paint thinners, and PFAS—the forever chemicals present in everything from breathable clothing to fire retardant fabrics of our living room couches. Recent reports have found all of the above substances in fish—and then some.
Why do we allow so much untreated sewage spill into the sea? Frankly speaking, for decades scientists and engineers thought that the ocean could handle it. The mantra back then was “dilution is the solution to pollution,” which might’ve worked when there were much fewer people living on earth—but not now. Today science is telling us that this old approach doesn’t hold. That marine habitats are much more sensitive than we had expected and can’t handle the amount of wastewater we are discharging into them.
The excess nitrogen and phosphorus that the sewage (and agricultural runoff) dumps into the water causes harmful algal blooms, more commonly known as red or brown tides. The water column is overtaken by tiny algae that sucks up all the oxygen from the water, creating dead zones like the big fish kills in the Gulf of Mexico. These algae also cause public health issues by releasing gases toxic to people and animals, including dementia, neurological damage, and respiratory illness. Marshes and mangroves end up with weakened root systems and start dying off. In a wastewater modeling study I published last year, we found that 31 percent of salt marshes globally were heavily polluted with human sewage. Coral reefs get riddled with disease and overgrown by seaweed.
We could convert sewage into high-value goods. It can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time.
Moreover, by way of our sewage, we managed to transmit a human pathogen—Serratia marcescens, which causes urinary, respiratory and other infections in people—to corals! Recent reports from the Florida Keys are showing white pox disease popping up in elk horn corals caused by S.marcescens, which somehow managed to jump species. Many recent studies have documented just how common this type of pollution is across the globe.
Yet, there is some good news in that abysmal sewage flow. Just like with plastic pollution, realizing that there’s a problem is the first step, so awareness is key. That’s exactly why I co-founded Ocean Sewage Alliance last year—a nonprofit that aims to “re-potty train the world” by breaking taboos in talking about the poop and pee problem, as well as uniting experts from various key sectors to work together to end sewage pollution in coastal areas.
To end this pollution, we have to change the ways we handle our sewage. Even more exciting is that by solving the sewage problem we can create all sorts of economic benefits. In 2015, human poop was valued at $9.5 billion a year globally, which today would be $11.5 billion per year.
What would one do with that sh$t?
We could convert it into high-value goods. Sewage can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time. Some exciting examples include biodigesters and urine diversion (or peecycling) systems that can produce fertilizer and biogas, essentially natural gas. The United Nations estimates that the biogas produced from poop could provide electricity for 138 million homes. And the recovered and cleaned water can be used for irrigation, laundry and flushing toilets. It can even be refined to the point that it is safe for drinking water – just ask the folks in Orange County, CA who have been doing so for the last few decades.
How do we deal with all the human-made pollutants in our sewage? There is technology for that too. Called pyrolysis, it heats up sludge to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, which causes most of the substances to degrade and fall apart.
There are solutions to the problems—as long as we acknowledge that the problems exist. The fact that you are reading this means that you are part of the solution already. The next time you flush your toilet, think about where this output may flow. Does your septic system work properly? Does your local treatment plant discharge raw sewage on rainy days? Can that plant implement newer technologies that can upcycle waste? These questions are part of re-potty training the world, one household at a time. And together, these households are the force that can turn back the toxic sewage tide. And keep our oceans blue.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
The rise of remote work is a win-win for people with disabilities and employers
Disability advocates see remote work as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike.
Any corporate leader would jump at the opportunity to increase their talent pool of potential employees by 15 percent, with all these new hires belonging to an underrepresented minority. That’s especially true given tight labor markets and CEO desires to increase headcount. Yet, too few leaders realize that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in this country, numbering 50 million.
Some executives may dread the extra investments in accommodating people’s disabilities. Yet, providing full-time remote work could suffice, according to a new study by the Economic Innovation Group think tank. The authors found that the employment rate for people with disabilities did not simply reach the pre-pandemic level by mid-2022, but far surpassed it, to the highest rate in over a decade. “Remote work and a strong labor market are helping [individuals with disabilities] find work,” said Adam Ozemik, who led the research and is chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group.
Disability advocates see this development as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike. For decades before the pandemic, employers had refused requests from workers with disabilities to work remotely, according to Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute. During the pandemic, "we all realized that...many of us could work remotely,” Foley says. “[T]hat was disproportionately positive for people with disabilities."
Charles-Edouard Catherine, director of corporate and government relations for the National Organization on Disability, said that remote-work options had been advocated for many years to accommodate disabilities. “It’s a little frustrating that for decades corporate America was saying it’s too complicated, we’ll lose productivity, and now suddenly it’s like, sure, let’s do it.”
The pandemic opened doors for people with disabilities
Early in the pandemic, employment rates dropped for everyone, including people with disabilities, according to Ozemik’s research. However, these rates recovered quickly. In the second quarter of 2022, people with disabilities aged 25 to 54, the prime working age, are 3.5 percent more likely to be employed, compared to before the pandemic.
What about people without disabilites? They are still 1.1 percent less likely to be employed.
These numbers suggest that remote work has enabled a substantial number of people with disabilities to find and retain employment.
“We have a last-in, first-out labor market, and [people with disabilities] are often among the last in and the first out,” Olzemik says. However, this dynamic has changed, with adults with disabilities seeing employment rates recover much faster. Now, the question is whether the new trend will endure, Olzemik adds. “And my conclusion is that not only is it a permanent thing, but it’s going to improve.”
Gene Boes, president and chief executive of the Northwest Center, a Seattle organization that helps people with disabilities become more independent, confirms this finding. “The new world we live in has opened the door a little bit more…because there’s just more demand for labor.”
Long COVID disabilities put a premium on remote work
Remote work can help mitigate the impact of long COVID. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 19 percent of those who had COVID developed long COVID. Recent Census Bureau data indicates that 16 million working age Americans suffer from it, with economic costs estimated at $3.7 trillion.
Certainly, many of these so-called long-haulers experience relatively mild symptoms - such as loss of smell - which, while troublesome, are not disabling. But other symptoms are serious enough to be disabilities.
According to a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, about a quarter of those with long COVID changed their employment status or working hours. That means long COVID was serious enough to interfere with work for 4 million people. For many, the issue was serious enough to qualify them as disabled.
Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found in a just-released study that the number of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. grew by 1.7 million. That growth stemmed mainly from long COVID conditions such as fatigue and brain fog, meaning difficulties with concentration or memory, with 1.3 million people reporting an increase in brain fog since mid-2020.
Many had to drop out of the labor force due to long COVID. Yet, about 900,000 people who are newly disabled have managed to continue working. Without remote work, they might have lost these jobs.
For example, a software engineer at one of my client companies has struggled with brain fog related to long COVID. With remote work, this employee can work during the hours when she feels most mentally alert and focused, even if that means short bursts of productivity throughout the day. With flexible scheduling, she can take rests, meditate, or engage in activities that help her regain focus and energy. Without the need to commute to the office, she can save energy and time and reduce stress, which is crucial when dealing with brain fog.
In fact, the author of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York study notes that long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act, depending on the specifics of the condition. That means the law can require private employers with fifteen or more staff, as well as government agencies, to make reasonable accommodations for those with long COVID. Richard Deitz, the author of this study, writes in the paper that “telework and flexible scheduling are two accommodations that can be particularly beneficial for workers dealing with fatigue and brain fog.”
The current drive to return to the office, led by many C-suite executives, may need to be reconsidered in light of legal and HR considerations. Arlene S. Kanter, director of the disability law and policy program at the Syracuse University College of Law, said that the question should depend on whether people with disabilities can perform their work well at home, as they did during Covid outbreaks. “[T]hen people with disabilities, as a matter of accommodation, shouldn’t be denied that right,” Kanter said.
But companies shouldn’t need to worry about legal regulations. It simply makes dollars and sense to expand their talent pool by 15% of an underrepresented minority. After all, extensive research shows that improving diversity boosts both decision-making and financial performance.
Companies that are offering more flexible work options have already gained significant benefits in terms of diverse hires. In its efforts to adapt to the post-pandemic environment, Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, decided to offer permanent fully remote work options to its entire workforce. And according to Meta chief diversity officer Maxine Williams, the candidates who accepted job offers for remote positions were “substantially more likely” to come from diverse communities: people with disabilities, Black, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, Native American, veterans, and women. The numbers bear out these claims: people with disabilities increased from 4.7 to 6.2 percent of Meta’s employees.
Having consulted for 21 companies to help them transition to hybrid work arrangements, I can confirm that Meta’s numbers aren’t a fluke. The more my clients proved willing to offer remote work, the more staff with disabilities they recruited - and retained. That includes employees with mobility challenges. But it also includes employees with less visible disabilities, such as people with long COVID and immunocompromised people who feel reluctant to put themselves at risk of getting COVID by coming into the office.
Unfortunately, many leaders fail to see the benefits of remote work for underrepresented groups, such as those with disabilities. Some even say the opposite is true, with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon claiming that returning to the office will aid diversity.
What explains this poor executive decision making? Part of the answer comes from a mental blindspot called the in-group bias. Our minds tend to favor and pay attention to the concerns of those in the group of people who seem to look and think like us. Dimon and other executives without disabilities don’t perceive people with disabilities to be part of their in-group. They thus are blind to the concerns of those with disabilities, which leads to misperceptions such as Dimon’s that returning to the office will aid diversity.
In-group bias is one of many dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. They impact decision making in all life areas, ranging from the future of work to relationships.
Another relevant cognitive bias is the empathy gap. This term refers to our difficulty empathizing with those outside of our in-group. The lack of empathy combines with the blindness from the in-group bias, causing executives to ignore the feelings of employees with disabilities and prospective hires.
Omission bias also plays a role. This dangerous judgment error causes us to perceive failure to act as less problematic than acting. Consequently, executives perceive a failure to support the needs of those with disabilities as a minor matter.
The failure to empower people with disabilities through remote work options will prove costly to the bottom lines of companies. Not only are limiting their talent pool by 15 percent, they’re harming their ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates. And as their lawyers and HR departments will tell them, by violating the ADA, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy.
By contrast, companies like Meta - and my clients - that offer remote work opportunities are seizing a competitive advantage by recruiting these underrepresented candidates. They’re lowering costs of labor while increasing diversity. The future belongs to the savvy companies that offer the flexibility that people with disabilities need.