Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The salty dumping grounds: a brief history of ocean dumping

In light of all the recent activity surrounding ocean plastics including voyages by both Captain Charlie Moore and Scripps, I thought it might be relevant to consider our practice (past and present) of using the oceans as receptacles for our waste. This is a little different than the typical posts (it's from an earlier project on plastics) and will be posted in sections. Here's the first.

In with the tides, Nantasket Beach, 1988

As far as plastics in the ocean, I needed no introduction. All along the sandy beaches of Hull, a thin barrier beach reaching out into Massachusetts Bay, where my family resided each summer, plastics washed up by the incoming tide were a common sight. We knew when Boston’s sewers had overloaded by the condoms, tampon applicators and other assorted bits of plastic that washed ashore after a storm. When lobstermen switched from the picturesque wooden traps to plastic coated metal, we knew by the fragments of trap that poked up from the wet sand below the high-tide mark. So when the Coastweeks cleanup came to Hull in 1988 my father, garbage bag in hand, wearing his Sears dungarees, faded blue denim shirt, and size 12 Jack Purcells, combed the beach separating plastic, metal and cardboard from the sand. My father, along with hundreds of other volunteers that year, collected a total of 25 tons of debris from Massachusetts’s beaches.

That fall, as I attended the annual Society of Toxicology and Chemistry Halloween Dance dressed as “Beach waste,” I was na├»ve about the dangers of plastics. As far as I knew plastic was a nuisance and an eyesore but was essentially inert unless burned; not all that interesting to a toxicologist. But it made a good costume. A necklace of pink and white tampon applicators and milk bottle caps collected by my father was the perfect accessory to the orange fishnet cape adorned with fading coke bottles, pieces of old lobster trap and other assorted beach waste items. Problem was, only other east coast attendees got that I was beach waste.

Back then, Alice Outwater, fresh out of MIT’s graduate school worked with the floatable scum of Boston - wastewater scum - for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. She writes about the 1980s, “roughly fifty thousand tampon applicators a day were arriving at the wastewater treatment plants in Boston.”[1] Recently, I asked her about the fate of those applicators, “Most of the plastics in the wastewater,” she replied, “ended up in the scum, which, originally, was released on the outgoing tide. ” As recently as 1989, Boston’s sewage treatment plants released upwards of 10,000 gallons per day of that scum, which included grease, oil, and rosy pink tampon applicators,[2] and it was all legal.

Who would have thought that the applicators my sisters and I flushed from our Newton home might one day wash up on our beloved Nantasket beach in Hull? Did Playtex consider this when they manufactured the first silky plastic applicators back in 1962[3]? Or, did both Playtex and consumers assume, as generations before them, that flowing water combined with technology was the solution for much of our waste?

The solution to pollution

Our relationship with the world’s oceans includes worship, fear and contemplation, yet throughout history we have dumped our waste into the nearest water body. If the ocean was large enough to hide fearsome sea monsters, make ships disappear, and swallow Atlantis, surely it was large enough to absorb our waste. By one estimate, for every million molecules of the world’s waters, the ocean contains over 970,000 molecules, while glaciers and ice caps contain 21,000, rivers contain a single molecule[4], and all of life including us watery beings contains a mere half a molecule. So what could beings who represent less than one part-per-million of all the oceans water possibly do to harm the oceans? Turns out, quite a lot.

Four thousand years ago, the Sumerians not only figured out how to move water to where they wanted it, but they also managed to develop a sewer system to carry away their waste. Two thousand years ago Romans built public latrines that discharged via their central sewage system, aptly named the Cloaca Maxima, directly into the river Tiber. Despite all this historical precedent (although one might think we’d have figured this out sooner) western world city dwellers were still dumping chamber pots into the streets and ditches until well into the late nineteenth century. Fortunately for us, city engineers and health departments finally figured out what the ancients had known - that flowing water could carry away a city’s human waste. By early twentieth century, when my father’s father was setting down roots in his new country after a trip across the Atlantic, and in his new city Boston, Boston was being celebrated for having one of the best sewage treatment systems in the country thanks to a collection of pipes that sent the city’s wastewater out into Boston Harbor.

As east coast cities like Boston and New York exploded with immigrants like my grandfather and his family, so too did the amount of household waste, including ashes, garbage, night soil and cesspool cleanings (for those not hooked up to the cities sewers) which along with street sweepings and dead animals, ended up in watery graves along the eastern seaboard, out of sight. While our coastal ancestors paved the way for dumping at sea, inlanders were no different. For them, flowing water, was also the solution to growing waste problems. By the end of the nineteenth century, some Midwestern cities were dumping upwards of 270,000 tons of garbage, manure, night-soil and dead animals into the mighty Mississippi River, while others dumped into the Missouri, the Ohio[5] and the Great Lakes

Occasionally, all this dumping was problematic. Once in a while, dumping interfered with the boats and barges that worked the rivers, or the tides and winds conspired, pushing putrid waste back towards the shore. Navigation became difficult, and coastal areas became hazardous to one’s health. After this happened in Boston during the summer of 1898, ninety years before tampon applicators washed up in Hull, and almost 100 years before Alguita’s maiden voyage, the wisdom of dumping at sea was reconsidered[6]. By 1899 the country’s first law protecting our waterways was enacted.[7] Although key phrases like floatable waste and navigable waters separated the lawful from the unlawful, centuries-old habits die hard. Seven years after the new law, Bostonians were still sending literally tons of market waste, ashes and house dirt, street sweepings and cesspool and catch basin cleanings out to the coastal ocean. Dumping at sea was cheap. In 1912 for just 40 cents, Boston could unload a ton of garbage[8]. As long as the stuff didn’t reappear and as long as ships could still sail, there was no reason not to dump it.

Thankfully for us all, coastal garbage dumping eventually ceased, but our mindset, that the solution to pollution is the ocean, persists. Throughout the past century and into the next, coastal cities and towns have continued to rely upon local rivers and harbors to swallow up their citizen’s sewage. Yet the sewage and wastewater that traveled from my grandfather’s apartment out to the harbor was far different than the sewage that flowed from the subsequent generation of Bostonians who came of age living better through chemistry. Before the current age of plastics, much of what was dumped eventually degraded – even the oil. But plastics don’t break down – at least not within our lifetime. And as recently as 1987, over 1,000 major industrial facilities and nearly 600 municipal sewage treatment plants discharged directly into estuaries or coastal waters around the country[9] dispersing not only fugitive tampon applicators and other bits of plastics but industrial contaminants as well.

To find out more about plastics in our oceans today, check out websites of both the ORV Alguita (Captain Moore's vessel) and the New Horizon, (Scripps' vessel.)

The second part to this article can be found here.

[1] Water, by Alice Outwater pg 169, and personal communication.


[3]; "The new Gentle Glide tampon is a major breakthrough in design. Since 1962 when Playtex created the first plastic applicator tampon, we've continually improved the design of our feminine care products by listening to consumers and anticipating their feminine care needs. This exciting new product is designed to meet women's needs for ultimate comfort and protection", commented Julie Elkinton, Vice President of Feminine Care at Playtex.” From

[4] Gaia’s Body, Tyler Volk, p 112

[5] The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste, 1908, Wm F. Morse, The Municipal Waste Journal and Engineer, Ny, NY

[6] The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste, 1908, Wm F. Morse, The Municipal Waste Journal and Engineer, Ny, NY.


[8] R. Hering and S. Greeley: Collection and Disposal of Municipal Refuse, 1921

[9] Wastes in Marine Environments, OTA, 1987 p.13.

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