Diffuse water pollution: an invisible and growing threat

Hannah Leckie, Water Policy Analyst, OECD Environment Directorate

On 22 March each year the world turns its attention to the global water crisis on the occasion of World Water Day. Water policies around the world are in need of urgent reform. Water – an essential natural resource on which all life depends – has become a global garbage can.

You wouldn’t think you could kill a freshwater ecosystem or an ocean, would you? But the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems has been degraded more than any other ecosystem. And more than 400 dead zones have been identified in the world’s oceans. Pollution is a major driver of such damage.

The effects of water pollution imperil not only ecosystems, but also human lives and economic growth. At least half the world’s population suffers from polluted water. Millions of people die each year due to water-related diseases. Pollution hotspots occur in all parts of the world, including OECD countries, where current pollution costs exceed billions of dollars each year.

The situation is set to worsen. Population growth and climate change are placing increasing pressure on the ability of finite water bodies to process wastewater, nutrients and other pollutants before they lose their life-supporting function. This will, in turn, increase risks to human health, economic development and ecosystems.

While we have seen decades of regulation and investment in wastewater treatment plants in OECD countries, with substantial gains for the economy, human health, environment and social values, there are still significant problems stemming from water pollution. Emerging and developing economies are yet to make such progress.

The most difficult part of the job remains to be done: addressing invisible and indirect sources of water pollution. Known as “diffuse pollution”, examples include urban storm water runoff into rivers; sulphur dioxide emissions to the air from fossil fuel combustion causing acid rain and acidification of lakes; and nutrients and pesticides washing off land into surface water or through the soil to groundwater.

Controlling diffuse sources of water pollution is particularly challenging. The reasons, as the OECD report on Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions puts it: the complexity of controlling multiple pollutants from multiple sources; their high variability in space and in time; associated management and regulation costs; and limited political acceptability of regulatory measures.

Valuable policy options are emerging in a number of countries and these deserve greater attention, adaptation, replication, and scaling up. In Korea, the government has set periodic phosphorus and dissolved oxygen reduction targets and has assigned pollution load limits using water quality modelling. Denmark and Norway have implemented pesticide taxes to control the toxicity of pesticides used. In the United Kingdom, a novel Government Support Package was developed to attract private financiers and reduce insurance liabilities to deliver the Thames Tideway Tunnel project – a major construction project to intercept and treat London’s sewer overflows. The Lake Taupo nitrogen cap and trade scheme in New Zealand is a policy that gives farmers the ability to buy and sell their established nutrient allocations without going over the overall catchment limit. In Germany, the water provider for Munich has established a voluntary payment scheme with local farmers to encourage the adoption of more sustainable organic low-cost farming practices and avoid a high-cost upgrade of drinking water treatment facilities.

Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters presents a risk-based policy framework that can assist policy makers and stakeholders through the myriad of decisions required to establish new, or alter existing, water quality management regimes. Central government has a critical role to play in the transition to more effective management of the risks from diffuse water pollution. This includes strong over-arching regulatory frameworks, stakeholder engagement, and money allocated to initiate experimental projects. In doing so, government sends the right signals to local authorities, stakeholders and investors, and minimises the cost of water quality management for society as a whole.

If we are serious about cutting water pollution, many other sectoral policy frameworks need to be aligned. For example, policies that support agriculture production, fossil fuel use and irrigation can lead to harmful and costly impacts to water quality.

Improving water quality is a critical element of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, fulfilling an essential role in reducing poverty and disease and promoting sustainable growth. Without significant attention to this invisible and growing threat, the future deterioration of water quality poses a major risk to freshwater ecosystems and the people that depend on them. To pretend otherwise would be to sell the citizens of the world – and the environment – down the river.

Useful links

To learn more, join the OECD Green Talks: LIVE on “Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions to Diffuse Pollution”, 13:00 CEST, 6 April 2017. Register today to join the livestream.

Access the report Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions

Read the OECD Council Recommendation on Water

For more information on OECD’s work on water, see: www.oecd.org/water

I see a sea shell on the sea shore. Or is it a plastic bottle?

Manan-VastsyayanaGrace Hanley, OECD Environment Directorate

An Ellen MacArthur Foundation report predicts that by 2050, there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish. One result is so-called ocean “garbage patches” like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which scientists have estimated to be about twice the size of Texas (See a NOAA map of the garbage patches here). An astounding 90% of this floating garbage pile is plastic, which should alarm us; but it shouldn’t surprise us considering every piece of plastic created still exists. It is a material that the Earth cannot digest and thus the way we use it and dispose of it must be carefully considered.Unfortunately, according to the Foundation’s report, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally, and that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy, or around $80 to $120 billion a year.

I’m not suggesting that we suddenly stop using plastic. That would be both impossible and impractical. In fact, there are great benefits to plastic. Plastic is a resource that cross-cuts every industry imaginable and on some levels can even help protect the environment by containing hazardous waste and preserving the life of machines and other products that would otherwise lose their ability to function, or corrode and be discarded. Plastic packaging can extend the shelf life of food that would otherwise be wasted and its light weight can also help reduce the amount of fuel needed to transport goods. In the medical industry antimicrobial plastic helps to stop the spread of diseases in hospitals and can both repel and kill bacteria on surfaces highly trafficked by patients and doctors.

Yet, the disadvantages of plastic use are severe and although we have the ability to drastically reduce our plastic production, consumption and waste, we are not in the habit of doing so. Whatever happened to recycling? Reduction relies on human behaviour, but humans are inherently lazy. It is much easier to dump everything into one bin than deal with sorting your glasses, cardboards, plastics, papers, compostable food and materials, and general rubbish.

However, it also important to note that it doesn’t always come down to individual choice. Often, infrastructure does not make recycling an easy option, which is why policymakers should strongly consider the benefits of creating comprehensive recycling infrastructure and incentives to engage in recycling. It’s hard enough to get people to recycle when ready-made clear recycling systems are in place, so when the infrastructure is confusing, inefficient or seemingly unattainable, the likelihood of recycling is drastically decreased.

Another issue is that waste quickly becomes something that is out of sight, out of mind. Most of us do not see where our rubbish goes. You take out the trash, a truck comes to collect it and poof—you never think about it again, until you start to see plastic bottles in the ocean and realise you should have taken those extra ten steps to put your bottle in the recycling bin.

Forecast of plastics volume growth and impact

plastics forecast

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The reality is that we’re not going to stop using plastic, but we can and we should start using it more responsibly. We can minimise our economic losses and environmental impacts by putting responsibility before convenience. Change the way you use, consume and discard plastic and convince others to as well so that we can collectively mitigate environmental and economic losses. This can be done by making lifestyle decisions that are equally beneficial to the consumers, the environment and the economy. For example, instead of buying a disposable plastic water bottle every day, you can buy a reusable one. This will both save you money and reduce potential pollution.

Moreover, it is the responsibility of governments to create and enforce laws that provide awareness and give people economic incentives to change their behaviour. A positive example of this is the plastic bag ban. The first city to implement a ban was Dhaka in 2002 in response to drain blockages caused by plastic bags responsible for flooding. This increased the spread of water-borne diseases and put pressure on infrastructure. In 2003, a surcharge on plastic bags in Ireland had a significant impact on consumer behaviour—the public almost unanimously opted for reusable totes in favour of plastic bags. Today, we continue to see a number of cities jump on board to ban or tax the bag in Rwanda, Australia, South Africa, Kenya, China, Italy, the United States, France and several others. Recently, England added a £0.05 surcharge on plastic bags and immediately saw an 85% drop in usage.

Another important legislative trend fighting plastic pollution is the microbead ban. These tiny pieces of plastics used in cosmetic products to exfoliate are so small that they cannot be filtered out of our water systems, meaning they end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Even worse, we end up eating them in our seafood. According to a Greenpeace analysis of 58 international studies, 170 types of widely consumed seafood products were found to contain microplastics. So if the idea of eating plastic makes you uncomfortable, you should push your government to reconsider selling products containing microbeads. One of the first politicians to bring attention to the issue was the Dutch Minister of Environment, Jacqueline Cramer in 2009 . Since then, Denmark has been pushing for a microbead ban in Europe; and in 2015 President Obama signed a bill prohibiting products containing microbeads in the United States.

Over the last decade, the environmental degradation caused by plastic has become increasingly apparent. In response, we have seen positive changes in legislation that aim to minimise and reduce our plastic usage in order to protect our marine ecosystems. However, our plastic habit is still unsettling and we must continue to push ourselves and our neighbours to change the way we use and dispose of it. On top of this, we must ensure that our government leaders and laws reflect responsible practice. Old habits die hard, but when we look at the damage that plastic causes to ourselves and our planet, it’s evident that it is a habit well worth breaking.

So, if you don’t want to see plastic floating in the waters on your next beach holiday—and I truly hope you don’t – act. It’s difficult to justify the dissatisfaction of those who choose inaction.

Useful links

Policies for Bioplastics in the Context of a Bioeconomy OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers

OECD project on the future of the ocean economy

The New Plastics Economy World Economic Forum

Living beyond our means: the nitrogen edition

The catalyst

Grace Hanley, OECD Environment Directorate

How did a recently-promoted German janitor use uranium to change the course of history and prove the President of British Association for the Advancement of Science right? In his 1898 presidential address, Sir William Crookes told the Association that: “England and all civilised nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat … the land that will grow wheat is absolutely dependent on difficult and capricious natural phenomena … It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty… The fixation of atmospheric nitrogen is one of the great discoveries, awaiting the genius of chemists.” The genius was Fritz Haber, who has renounced his Judaism in the hope of getting a university job. He got one as a janitor at Karlsruhe University, but by 1898 had worked his way up to a professorship. He used uranium as a catalyst to produce ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in 1909, a process that BASF engineer Carl Bosch helped him to scale up to commercial viability by 1912.

The Haber-Bosch process enabled artificial fertilizer to be manufactured massively and cheaply, and we still use a modified Haber-Bosch process today. Chemical factories now produce more nitrogen than the microbes in the soil do, but while this has boosted agricultural productivity and allowed world population to continue expanding, it has also caused devastating pollution.

The main problem is that nitrogen is used inefficiently by the agricultural industry, which triggers enormous nitrogen losses to the environment, resulting in ecosystem degradation and biodiversity losses as well damaging the land and water. The ammonium nitrates contained in fertilizers are easily soluble, which allows rainfall to carry them into run-off water and seep into water supplies, causing algal blooms and oxygen depletion in the water. Such effects devastate ecosystems and create ocean dead zones.

Research has also implicated nitrogen’s role in climate change, and it is critical that we take collective action to reduce it. There’s a lot of talk about carbon footprints, but we are only beginning to hear about the realities of our nitrogen footprint. As assistant professor at New York University, and recent visitor to the OECD David R. Kanter suggests, there is a need to better integrate nitrogen concerns in domestic policies and room in international law to include nitrogen. In fact, there really is no room to exclude nitrogen because we cannot afford the costs of reparation if we continue business as usual.

Kanter argues that nitrogen could be included in one of the most successful treaties in international law: The Montreal Protocol, where there was universal ratification by all 197 parties to protect against substances that deplete the ozone layer. The Protocol is a landmark of sustainable development and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. As nitrogen in the atmosphere contributes to ozone depletion, it is important that it is explicitly included.

Chemists often talk about balances, as so do bankers, and the financial world could provide us with some useful lessons, or stark warnings, about what happens when you get the balance wrong. Take the 2007-08 crisis in the United States for example. The big banks supported unrealistic subprime housing loans to people who would likely never be able to pay them off. This allowed people to purchase impressive homes and spend money they didn’t have for a time—until it all came crashing down. Long story short, reality set in and it put the entire US economy in turmoil, which escalated into a global financial and economic crisis.

What does this have to do with nitrogen? The first lesson is that the crisis was avoidable. Had realistic standards and regulations been put into place, the financial climate of 2007-08 would have looked drastically different.  The same is true for nitrogen: if we co-operatively manage nitrogen efficiency and minimise the amount of excess nitrogen emitted into the environment, we will drastically improve our social, economic and environmental conditions in the coming years. Policymakers must create regional specific strategies and policy instruments to implement these in international and domestic legislation.

Let’s not follow the example of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. Fiscally, we have seen how living beyond our means has serious consequences. However, government bailouts have enabled us to tolerate the idea that living beyond our means isn’t fatal. There has always been an eventual—although not always ideal—solution to our fiscal woes. However, the environment is less forgiving. We don’t have the luxury of requesting bailout replenishment from Mother Nature. Rather, let’s take the example of the Montreal Protocol which attests to the importance of co-operation and regulation to ensure environmental and economic stability and get things back into balance.

Useful links

Nitrogen oxides (NOx ) emissions and intensities in Environment at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators

Nitrogen balance versus agricultural output in Towards Green Growth: Monitoring Progress: OECD Indicators