Dr. Stephanie Wear is a marine ecologist, conservation strategy advisor, and global spokesperson at The Nature Conservancy. In this interview, she shares her journey of learning about the threat of ocean sewage pollution; covers why this issue is relevant to marine conservation, human health, and gender equality; and discusses how funders can get involved in implementing solutions.

Photo of healthy coral reef

Photo: Beth Watson/ Coral Reef Image Bank


Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when sewage pollution arose in your mind as a significant threat to nature?

I was living on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean, during the early years of my career at The Nature Conservancy. I used to drive every day over sewage that was running through the street and into the water. I was reminded daily that we were dumping sewage into the habitat that I was working to protect.

In 2003 I went to a regional fisheries meeting in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, and we had crazy rain that week. All of the Virgin Islands are characterized by beautiful, crystal clear blue water, and yet everywhere I looked, the water was brown. I realized how we were ignoring what was happening on land. We were spending all this time thinking about fisheries and Marine Protected Areas, but I could look out the window and see that the land—eroded soil, oil from roads, sewage—everything was washing into the water. That really emphasized for me how important it is to manage what’s happening on land in order to protect what’s going on in the water.


Clearly ocean sewage pollution is an issue in the Caribbean. What’s the global scope of this problem?

Sewage pollution is happening everywhere. As a society, we have not figured out how to effectively manage human waste. Wherever you have people, you have sewage pollution.  That really was a big surprise. I did not expect to find that—in every country, even those with supposedly more advanced infrastructure—we are all literally swimming and fishing in our own excrement.


Swimming in excrement does not sound safe. It sounds like ocean sewage pollution has implications for human health and marine health? What’s the relationship there?

It’s not one directional. People can make ocean habitats sick and ocean habitats can make people sick. We’ve found human pathogens from sewage causing disease in coral. And you can eat fish that have been exposed to sewage that will make you sick. This is unusual. A lot of times in environmental situations there’s an upstream-to-downstream problem where you can be a bad actor in one place and it doesn’t bother you, but it bothers those downstream. In this case, there is a circular relationship.

There is a range of ways people can get sick from the fact that we’re polluting our waters with human waste. It’s not just that you can get sick with a gastroenteritis infection. It’s not just that you can get cholera. You can also get exposed to toxic fumes from harmful algal blooms or get exposed to neurotoxins consuming shellfish. Pollutants from sewage can contaminate seafood destined for human consumption.

Sewage pollution is happening everywhere. As a society, we have not figured out how to effectively manage human waste. Wherever you have people, you have sewage pollution.

Stephanie Wear photo

Dr. Stephanie Wear. Photo: The Nature Conservancy


When fish become toxic, that must have a big impact on peoples’ livelihoods. What are some of the economic impacts of ocean sewage pollution?

It might sound paradoxical, but sewage has both positive and negative implications for the economy. One realization that’s been surprising to me has been coming to understand the value of human waste. It’s chock full of valuable resources that we are discarding rather than capturing and using. And that includes water, obviously, but it also includes nutrients and the potential for fuel.  And given that we—by “we,” I mean the collective we—that we are working to innovate, to identify sources of safe drinking water, to identify sustainable fuel sources, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the fact that we are not making the effort to capture those resources in sewage, it’s shocking. Now there are some people that are starting to do that, and that’s very exciting. But the realization of how much potential we’re wasting by flushing sewage down a toilet into a sewer and into the ocean is sobering. From a solutions perspective, there’s significant potential for us to capture those resources and achieve long-term sustainability by doing that.

The sectors hit hardest by negative economic impacts are tourism and fisheries. There are fisheries that must close even in the US because of poor water quality from sewage pollution. In mid-summer 2020, beaches and fisheries in New Haven, Connecticut closed when a 50-year-old sewage pipe collapsed, and two million gallons of raw sewage flowed into their waters. A lot of people went and swam at the beach before notifications could be distributed, which is a major health risk.

There are also certain times of the year when communities must avoid certain fisheries because they’re unsafe. When fish are consuming toxic algae, triggered by the nutrients in sewage, it makes the fish toxic.

One realization that’s been surprising to me has been coming to understand the value of human waste. It’s chock full of valuable resources that we are discarding rather than capturing and using. And that includes water, obviously, but it also includes nutrients and the potential for fuel.


How do you perceive awareness of the sewage pollution problem among the conservation community?

Most of the conservation practitioners who work in communities know this is a problem. In many places when I talk about it with somebody, I hear, ‘Oh, yeah, we have this problem. We’ve got this outfall over here,’ or, ‘We’ve got septic issues on our island. We know this is a problem. We don’t know what to do about it.’ Conservation funders are often less aware of this challenge.

And, many people who live in big cities with sewage treatment plants are not necessarily aware that discharging partially-treated sewage into bodies of water or into the ocean is creating environmental harm. The mantra of ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’ has been very much embraced. People have assumed that the ocean is big enough to absorb sewage. People are under the impression that we treat everything, that the discharge is clean, that we’re not causing environmental harm. But that is not the case.

The mantra of ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’ has been very much embraced. People have assumed that the ocean is big enough to absorb sewage. People are under the impression that we treat everything, that the discharge is clean, that we’re not causing environmental harm. But that is not the case.


What’s the role of taboo against talking about human waste in getting this problem solved, or not?

I think that the taboo around talking about human waste has really muffled us. Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to think about it. They don’t want to see it. They don’t want to smell it. They don’t want to get into this space. It is not an appealing or sexy space. Out of sight, out of mind is what people tend to prefer. “To flush it and forget it.”

But when people recognize that they will come into contact with sewage again, after it has flushed—that’s when they get interested.


Is taboo the biggest challenge to getting sewage out of the ocean?

Part of the challenge is addressing the taboo because you must have people willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in a problem that’s often overlooked.

Another challenge is the complexity of this problem. It’s dependent not just on the biological or physical environment, but also the social context. There is tradition, culture, safety, and a number of different social and cultural factors that must be considered in this space. You can’t just come in with a miracle toilet and solve this problem. There’s a complex layer of human behavior that we have to think about.

There is tradition, culture, safety, and a number of different social and cultural factors that must be considered in this space. You can’t just come in with a miracle toilet and solve this problem. There’s a complex layer of human behavior that we have to think about.


How does the issue of sewage pollution relate to gender equality? What’s the connection there?

Start with the fact that about a third of the world’s population—2.5 billion people—lack access to improved sanitation. Ultimately if there’s no access to sanitation, that means a lot of the waste is going to the ocean.

But the global sanitation crisis also means problems for women and girls. When they reach puberty, many girls around the world stop going to school because there aren’t enough toilets at school; there’s no privacy. When girls are not getting educated, that means they’re taken out of the picture. They’re less able to be problem-solvers in their community. So much potential is lost by the simple fact that there isn’t a toilet at school.

From an environmental perspective, it’s well documented that one of the biggest things we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—which in turn helps solves all kinds of environmental threats that we’re facing, including ocean health—is to educate girls and empower women. By getting enough toilets in schools, it not only helps girls stay in school, it’s also giving them the opportunity to be contributors to the solution space and to their communities in more meaningful and impactful ways. At the same time, toilets in schools reduce sewage in the environment. That’s one example of a co-benefit of solving the sewage pollution problem: it’s a win-win for gender equality, public health, and ocean health.

Providing girls with a safe place to go to the bathroom where they’re not at risk for sexual assault, which in some places is truly a huge risk. There are many parts of the world where women practice open defecation because they don’t have a safe place to go. So you can also address a genuine safety concern for women. Again, keeping women in the picture leads to better outcomes for communities and the environment in which they live.

By getting enough toilets in schools, it not only helps girls stay in school, it’s also giving them the opportunity to be contributors to the solution space and to their communities in more meaningful and impactful ways. At the same time, toilets in schools reduce sewage in the environment. That’s one example of a co-benefit of solving the sewage pollution problem: it’s a win-win for gender equality, public health, and ocean health.


What can funders do to help solve this problem?

One of the first things funders can do is learn more about how their own sewage in their own community is dealt with, and talk about it. Talk to neighbors and find out about their septic systems—do they do regular maintenance? What do water quality tests for local streams show? Find out how the local sewage treatment plant works (if they’re hooked up to one) and get involved  We need funders to become knowledgeable about the threat space, to understand the complexity of this problem and begin to support work that aims to mitigate the threat.

Funders can also be ambassadors. This is not something that will be solved by philanthropy alone. Solutions will certainly involve public-private partnerships. Funders can play a role catalyzing this work and providing the startup funds to spur innovation.

A great example of that is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiating the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to develop “next generation” toilets aimed at providing innovative sanitation solutions. We hadn’t really looked at the design of the toilet for at least 100 years. They invited teams to completely reimagine a toilet design that can capture and transform human waste into a net benefit, all at an affordable price. It’s exciting to see the innovation in this space—from new thinking in user design and engineering to behavior change and culturally-appropriate messaging.

We need funders to become knowledgeable about the threat space, to understand the complexity of this problem and begin to support work that aims to mitigate the threat.

Funders can also be ambassadors. This is not something that will be solved by philanthropy alone. Solutions will certainly involve public-private partnerships. Funders can play a role catalyzing this work and providing the startup funds to spur innovation.


What would you say to a conservation funder working on fisheries management and biodiversity who may not see an immediate connection to sewage pollution?

It’s interesting to think of sewage pollution as a non-traditional topic. At the beginning of the U.S. environmental movement, back in the 1970s, we were worried about rivers on fire. We were worried about air pollution, so pollution really is “old school conservation.” Since then the conservation community has expanded into other spaces and diversified the strategies it uses and the problems it seeks to solve. Addressing sewage pollution is going back to basics. If you think about any other strategies—fisheries, Marine Protected Areas, or restoring habitat—the most fundamental necessary component of all of that is good water quality. You can’t have a healthy fishery in polluted water. You can’t have healthy Marine Protected Areas if the water is polluted, and you certainly can’t restore a system in polluted water. If you are interested in investing in those other strategies, make sure you are doing those in water that is clean. To me clean water is foundational, and it’s crazy that it’s not being addressed at scale, given how foundational it is.

The problem is solvable, and we know which solutions are most effective.

Ocean Sewage Pollution Hub

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