5 Small Changes You Can Make at Home to Protect Your Local Aquatic Life
Your leftover morning coffee might be poisoning the fish.
I went to college in an old town in the Hudson River Valley. Like many old northeastern towns and cities, the sewage system was not built to handle the amount of or even types of waste from an entire modern-day city.
Every time it rained, even a little, loads of raw or partially treated sewage, rainwater, and other types of environmental waste would expel into the Hudson River. Days following these events would yield high concentrations of E. coli and other dangerous fecal coliforms, floating debris such as “flushable” wipes and feminine hygiene products, and toxic industrial waste.
Days following these rain events would yield high concentrations of E. coli and other dangerous fecal coliforms, floating debris such as “flushable” wipes and feminine hygiene products, and toxic industrial waste.
According to the EPA, about 860 municipalities around the U.S. deal with their sewage in this way, called a Combined Sewage System. This system “collects rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater into one pipe” for transport to a sewage treatment plant. However, if too much wastewater enters at once (i.e. during a rainstorm), the system will overflow in what is called a Combined Sewage Overflow, or CSO, and dump all of that waste directly into an adjacent body of water.
Most of us flush the toilet or turn on the sink and watch the water go down the drain and disappear. But of course, it doesn’t actually disappear. Learning where your water goes, who and what it impacts, and what you can do to mitigate environmental damage in your community can go a long way toward improving your local aquatic ecosystem.
1. Find out where your tap water comes from, and where it goes.
This is critical to treating your water correctly.
Depending on the wastewater system in your area, you may or may not need to worry as much about “poisoning” your water with caffeine and chemicals.
For example, if, like my college town, your area experiences CSOs and you run the risk of all your raw waste being dumped into the river nearby, then you’ll have to be a lot more careful.
There are numerous ways to figure out from where your water is sourced, and where it goes (or may go) once it’s down the drain.
How you can learn about your local water supply
Your town or city’s website likely has a page entitled “Water” or “Water & Sewer”. If you can’t find it on the menu, simply searching for your town’s name plus “drinking water” will likely retrieve the correct page immediately.
If you can’t find it that way or would like more information, this page from the United States Geological Survey contains more information regarding local drinking water systems in the United States.
2. Don’t flush pills or medication down the toilet.
More people do this than you might think. They no longer need to take a certain medication and flush it down the toilet in order to dispose of it “safely.”
However, depending on your local sewage system, these medications can get into the water supply and cause all kinds of problems with local aquatic life. Certain drugs such as metformin and estrogen-containing birth control pills and have been found to cause feminization of male reproductive components in young fish. This is problematic because it results in more intersex fish, smaller sizes in male fish, and lessens their ability to reproduce. Lack of reproductive abilities obviously poses a threat to the sustainability of the species.
Other drugs such as antidepressants have been found to cause similar problems, disrupting the fish’s circadian rhythms and causing them to struggle to defend themselves. Even over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) can pose a danger to aquatic life, with research showing that exposure during the embryonic stage could result in lower hatching rates, increased erratic swimming movements, and decreased heart rate.
How to properly dispose of medications
Fortunately, this is an easy fix. Today, medication disposal sites or take-back locations are becoming more widespread. Many major drug stores such as Walgreens, CVS, and even local hospitals and city halls now have safe drop-off locations.
If you don’t happen to have a drug take-back location near you, don’t worry. The FDA also has instructions for safely throwing away medications in the trash, so that they won’t attract animals or leak out. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than flushing them down the toilet.
The FDA does have a short list of medications on the “flush list”, which are primarily medications that are highly dangerous or addictive and thus pose a higher threat to humans than to the environment. That list can be found here.
Of course, always do what is safest for yourself and your family first. But if you have the luxury of choice, then please try to dispose of your medications in a way that is also safe for your environment.
3. Don’t pour caffeinated coffee or used coffee grounds down the drain.
In a similar vein to #2, polluting the water supply with caffeine can wreak havoc on developing larval fish. In fact, caffeine is one of the highest pharmacological pollutants in freshwater ecosystems.
Of course, there are other ways that caffeine gets in the waterway besides coffee or tea (such as caffeine pills and supplements), but it’s still safe to say that rational consumption and an alternate means of disposal are solid recommendations.
Wastewater treatment is considered to be generally effective in removing caffeine, however in areas where raw sewage makes its way into groundwater and reservoirs, so will the caffeine.
A 2016 study in the UK found surprisingly high concentrations of caffeine in the groundwater, believed to have originally come from sewage systems.
If you need some more reasons not to dump coffee grounds down the drain, consider that coffee grounds do not break down in water. This can cause them to easily build up in your plumbing and clog your pipes. If you have a septic tank, the grounds may acidify the wastewater, stopping the bacteria from breaking down anything in the tank, filling it with solid waste.
The best ways to dispose of caffeinated coffee grounds
The two best ways to dispose of used coffee grounds (or coffee itself) are:
- Compost them
- Toss them in the trash
Based on current research, caffeine should degrade relatively quickly in most soils, so tossing coffee grounds in your compost or combining it with your soil should not significantly impact groundwater or local water supplies in general.
Additionally, many believe that caffeine helps keep garden pests away from your plants. Used coffee grounds are more neutral than acidic and should not negatively impact your soil’s pH.
4. Reduce microplastics pollution from your clothing.
Microplastics contaminating the water supply was a hot topic back when the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was passed.
This act caused quite a stir when it banned commonly consumed cosmetic items such as certain soaps and toothpastes with plastic beads that are “5 millimeters or less in size” and are “intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the body or any part of the body.”
Plastic microbeads are small plastic beads smaller than 5mm in size that is added to health and beauty products, whereas microplastics are any type of plastic debris that is less than 5mm in size. Thus, plastic microbeads fall under the umbrella of microplastics.
Although a huge step for curbing microplastic pollution, this act concerned only plastic microbeads, rather than all microplastics.
Although it is wonderful that we are eliminating those little plastic beads that were so popular in shower gels and face scrubs from entering the water supply, a potentially larger concern are the microplastics that we pour into our water every day when we wash our clothes.
Both microfibers and microplastics can absorb harmful chemicals from detergents and manufacturing and can poison aquatic creatures who may ingest them either accidentally or intentionally.
In a matter of practicality, it would be impossible to ban microplastics altogether, as they can come from many, many products, but there are ways in which we as consumers can cut down the amount of microplastic pollution that we create individually.
How you can reduce microplastics pollution
One of the biggest sources of microplastics pollution is clothes washing. Of course, you can’t just stop washing your clothes. The biggest culprits are clothes made from synthetic materials, such as polyester, nylon, and synthetic fleeces.
Of course, choosing clothes made from natural or more environmentally friendly materials will help reduce the release of microplastics. But even the manufacturing of certain “natural” fabrics (such as cotton) takes their toll on the environment.
Choosing more tightly woven materials can reduce microplastic pollution, as can gentle hand-washing.
Another somewhat effective method is to use a product specifically developed to catch microplastics in the washing machine. Although none are 100% effective, they can do a decent job of decreasing the number of rogue microplastics by up to 86%. Some popular choices include the Guppyfriend Washing Bag, Girlfriend Collective’s microfiber filter, and the Cora Ball.
5. Don’t flush anything besides toilet paper and human waste down the toilet.
That’s right. Anything.
“Flushable” wipes are probably the biggest scam in the bathroom product industry. They are literally designed to be wet. So how can we expect them to suddenly break down with the sewage? There is minimal evidence suggesting that certain brands do in fact break down relatively quickly, but even then the ecological impact of the microfibers/microplastics and chemicals within them remains unknown.
Absolutely no feminine hygiene products are flushable. You know that sign you’ve seen on the inside of every single public restroom stall that says, “Please do not flush feminine hygiene products”? Well, it’s not messing around. Not only will easily clog your toilet (my college toilet overflowed three times when one of my roommates kept flushing tampons), but if they make it into your town’s sewage, they can potentially end up in local waters via CSO, or get stuck in the sewage system.
What happens when you do flush other things down the toilet?
One possible answer is that you will contribute to the creation of a “fatberg,” which is especially likely if you live in a large city. These so-called “fatbergs” are typically made up of household products such as toothbrushes, dental floss, incontinence and period pads, tampons, children’s bath toys, human hair, and lots and lots of wipes, all held together with large amounts of oil and fats from people’s kitchen sinks.
Another possibility is that, since they don’t break down, if you live in an area with a combined sewage system, they may end up in the water after a big rain and add to your local river pollution.
Of course, flushing solid items down your toilet will also very likely clog your toilet, so it’s best practice for everyone invoved to toss anything you are uncertain about in the trash.
Staying Safe in Your Local Waters
Even if you’re doing everything right, that doesn’t mean that everyone else is. Especially when you consider pollution from factories (current or defunct), power plants, or even water treatment plants. There’s generally no cause for alarm when it comes to day-to-day activities, but you may want to limit certain activities if your local waters are in fact polluted.
Be sure to check local guidelines for water-based activities beforehand.
Additionally, CSOs can cause exceedingly high levels of dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and enterococci. If your area experiences CSOs, then activities such as swimming, fishing, kayaking, and even cleaning up litter may be considered unsafe in certain areas, espcially after a rainstorm. If this is the case, your town or city likely has this information available to check on their website.
If you want to become involved in monitering or cleaning up your local waters, check out this list of EPA citizen science projects, or search for one in your area.