In the third of a series of articles, Sam Judd - our Young New Zealander of the Year and co founder of Sustainable Coastlines - reflects on the challenges and opportunities that the United Nations Environment Program faces with regard to oceans.
The other day in the middle of a rather important meeting I excused myself to go to the bathroom. As I dispatched the contents into the wastewater system by flushing the loo, the button from my pants fell into the bowl and disappeared into the wastewater system.
This experience not only made the rest of my meeting really quite embarrassing, but it made me think about where all of the material that we all flush away goes - welcome to the dirty world of wastewater.
Every day, millions of tons of inadequately treated sewage, industrial and agricultural waste enters the world's waterways.
Each year 1.8 million children under five years old die because of water related diseases and over half of the hospital beds in the world are occupied because of water-related disease.
The stench of poorly managed wastewater is almost like a keystone indicator of poverty - 90% of all wastewater in developing countries is discharged untreated directly into rivers, lakes or the ocean.
You would think that treating our bodily discharge would be of a high priority. The damage untreated sewage does to the environment, economy and human health is hideous including "dead zones" in the ocean from eutrophication (which I have written about before), bans on fishing and swimming and disease.
Globally, the value of the freshwater ecosystems is estimated by academics at over $400 billion USD.
But despite the huge value that our water has there are many places in New Zealand, such as Dunedin where only "primary treatment" is carried out on the wastewater that comes from 126,000 people.
For your information, "primary treatment" just means running the waste through a screen to pull out tampons and condoms - clearly doing nothing for water quality and disease.
And right here in Auckland, the Council tells us not to swim for 48 hours after rain and to avoid areas such as stormwater outfalls and stream mouths.
Even since the legendary mayor Dove-Myer Robinson (who also suggested we should have built a subway system) diverted the wastewater from the Hauraki Gulf to a treatment facility in Mangere in 1960 which the city still uses today, we still have "permanent health warning" signs at several beaches.
Cox's Bay, The Wairau Outlet, Meola Reef and Weymouth Beach are all supposedly too dirty to ever go near and in Dunedin despite the perfect waves, surfers have to avoid going to Tomahawk Beach for fear of getting sick.
Frankly this is an embarrassment.
Effective monitoring and policy is an obvious one for public wastewater and in some place, like along the Waimea Inlet near Nelson where my dad lives, new developments are forced to install reticulation systems where the sewage is treated so well that potable water comes out.
When you multiply this by all the residents in an area, it will have a significant impact, but industry also has a major part to play and we can influence this through our purchasing choices.
To avoid high labour costs and environmental compliance many manufacturers have exported their environmental water problems to other countries such as China.
The clothes we wear are one of the biggest cultural statements we make every day and some of you may be shocked to see some of the brands that are not up to scratch when it comes to monitoring their supply chains. Even Puma - who have recently been showered with praise for their approach towards sustainability with their chairman Jochen Zeitz being one of the founders of the B Team who are trying to promote sustainable business - have been criticised for contracting companies that pollute the groundwater in China.
Once again, we must look to innovation to solve these difficult problems and start recognising that wastewater is a resource. Even the strongest sewage is 99% water and much of it has not had excrement in it as it has come from the basin or shower.
One simple solution that will help the wastewater challenge and also save you on your water bill is to reticulate the water from your basin into the cistern on your toilet like in this video here.
Even more promising on a bigger scale is the inspiring Nelson-based Aquaflow Bionomic Group. Their inspiring team is harvesting algae from sewage ponds and using it to create biofuel that is refined enough to use on planes.
The other piece of good news is that the United Nations Environment Program has set up the Global Wastewater Initiative - which will share best management practices and tools that will help communities tackle the challenge of dirty water.
Only time will tell whether these innovations will serve to help us win the challenge of wastewater which is huge and urgent. You can always sew another button onto your pants, but there is no replacement for an area in the ocean that becomes a "dead zone", or for a child who perishes because of dirty water before they have even had the chance to go to school and learn how to look after it.