The Effects of Wastewater on the Environment

It’s not a secret that there’s a real problem in the form of pollution. Many experts estimate that if we are unable to limit global warming to 34.7 degrees Fahrenheit, the consequences may become irreversible. And while it’s easy to simply leave the responsibility to the higher powers in society, the indispensable truth is that this requires a collective effort in order to successfully avert this impending disaster.

It’s not about drastic change, but rather a gradual and consistent correction of bad habits and the reinforcement of good habits. True change often starts at the base level and works its way up. One of the less covered pollutants comes in the form of wastewater. But before we delve further into its effects on the environment, there’s one question that needs to be answered first.

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Source: Canva

What Exactly is Wastewater?

Wastewater refers to any liquid waste or sewage that comes from households, hospitals, factories, and any other structure that uses water in its facilities. It is the byproduct of the usage of water. So, whenever you use the faucets or flush a toilet, the water that is used will eventually make it to the ocean and other large bodies of water.

This water is often discharged into a body of water after treatment. But there are many instances when current wastewater treatment methods are not enough to make it safe for the environment. There are many factors that make it difficult to make the water safe.

Two of the factors that have the most significant impact are:

Wastewater Volume

Essentially, any water that you use in a household or office will eventually contribute to the volume of wastewater that the property produces. The use of water will fall under either internal and external use.

Internal use includes the use of water in faucets, toilets, and showers. This refers to any water that is coursed through a household’s internal drainage. About 60% of wastewater is made up of water that is used internally.

External use includes water that is used to clean garages, irrigate crops, and water gardens. These do not usually make it to sewage systems as they are absorbed by the soil, or they simply evaporate. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t instances when externally-used water finds its way to drainage systems. This is what makes up 40% of the total wastewater.

The volume of wastewater produced varies between properties. This depends on the water usage levels of a particular property. That being said, there is also a strong correlation between the number of households in the area and the potential amount of wastewater. According to WikiLawn, Austin, Texas, has some of the highest numbers of newly-constructed homes in the past five years, and as a result, the amount of wastewater produced is expected to increase drastically.

Wastewater Pollutant Levels

This ultimately affects the extent to which post-water treatment wastewater affects the environment. Pollutants include any chemical that homeowners flush down their drains: paints, solvents, hormones, oils, herbicides, pesticides, human waste, etc. A combination of all these products poses a risk to both humans and wildlife alike.

How Bad is Wastewater For The Environment?

The fact that we are making water unusable means that we are literally draining water supplies. Despite the fact that the Earth’s surface is mostly made up of bodies of water, consider the fact that we are dumping out waste into those bodies of water. We are literally polluting the water that we could potentially use. But that’s not the full extent of the damage that wastewater causes to the environment.

1. Water and Habitat Contamination

The most immediate effect of wastewater on the environment is when it contributes toward the contamination and destruction of natural habitats and the wildlife that live in those habitats by exposing them to harmful chemicals that would otherwise not be present over the natural course of things.

2. Squalor

Wastewater is one of the worst sources and carriers of diseases. According to a report from the World Health Organization, more than 3.4 million people die each year from a waterborne disease. Besides the diseases wastewater carries, the combination of human waste, solvents, and paints create fumes that aren’t only putrid but they also expose people to harmful fumes. There’s a real danger when you inhale sewage gas.

3. Soil Degradation

Wastewater is often treated and repurposed for use in irrigation. As if that wasn’t bad enough on its own, water treatment processes are not completely effective. Chemicals that are harmful to crops may find their way to the soil when the wastewater isn’t properly treated. These chemicals will cause the soil to yield fewer crops at a slower rate. Consider also the fact that these crops will eventually be eaten, which can also harm humans.

4. It Contains Harmful Substances

The composition of wastewater may include heavy metals, pathogens, salts, toxic chemicals, oil and grease, solids, nutrients, sludge, acids and bases, toxic organic compound, organic and inorganic materials. This effluent poses numerous hazards for humans, animals and the environment as a whole. It can be toxic, corrosive, reactive, acidic and ignitable. Therefore, it must undergo treatment before being reused or redirected into the water supply.

5. Wastewater Effects on Water Bodies

Waterways are generally most at risk to the harmful effects of wastewater. Toxic compounds in the effluent disrupt aquatic ecosystems. When a large amount of biodegradable substances end up in the water, organisms will start to break them down, and they use a lot of dissolved oxygen. Dissolved oxygen is critical for marine life to thrive, and as it becomes depleted, it can be life-threatening for fish.

Wastewater also contains oil and grease that are harder to break down and can settle on the surface of the water. This blocks that light the photosynthetic aquatic plants need. It can also suffocate fish and get caught in birds’ feathers. Like heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, these are toxic to both humans and animals. If someone drank from or ate fish from a contaminated water source, they could also suffer from serious health effects. The same happens with the animals and plants living in the water.

6. Other Harmful Characteristics of Wastewater

When untreated wastewater gets dumped, it’s often warm or even hot, which can elevate the temperature of the water, further disrupting the ecosystem. Fish are cold-blooded, so they rely on the water to regulate their own body temperature. If the water is too warm, it can increase respiration, feeding and movement. Additionally, the temperature of the water also affects the amount of oxygen in it.

How Do We Mitigate The Effects of Wastewater on The Environment?

As bad as the problem sounds, there are two ways that we can mitigate its impact on the environment. Like most major problems, the wastewater problem needs to be solved through a collective effort. The best way we can contribute towards that effort is to:

1. Conserve Water

The less water we use, the less wastewater we’re going to produce. A few simple ways we can do so is by fixing indoor leaks, reducing shower time, and by avoiding any wasteful washing habits. Switching to water-saving appliances will also help minimize the amount of wastewater produced. This helps water treatment plants process better because if there’s less wastewater, the quality of treatment will be better.

2. Minimize The Polluting Content Of Wastewater

The other factor that makes wastewater so harmful lies in the variety of chemicals that mix with human waste and food scraps. This can be averted by choosing the products we buy carefully. A good example of this is by using only low-phosphorus household products in order to reduce phosphate levels in wastewater. Phosphate is a chemical that is found in most home cleaning products.

3. Innovative Decentralized Water Technology

It requires Intelligence water use as different water uses need different waterQuality. It is required to promote the 3 R approach- Reduce the discharge of WW, Treat or remediate and Reuse. The decentralized technologies are Ecological Sanitation consisting of Septic Tanks, Constructed Wetlands, Composting Toilets, Biodigestor, Anaerobic Filter, Duckweed Lagoons that involve the collection, treatment, and final disposition of the WW on/or close to the location and these are useful in treating wastes from residences, households, small villages, isolated communities, etc.

Advantages of these decentralized systems include the possibility for reusing the effluent and the potentiality for aquifer recharging. A problem in a unit doesn’t collapse the whole system. The local potentialities can be developed as small systems can be designed, built and managed by a local professional, improving the local economy.

4. Wastewater Regeneration Technologies

The technologies control both the aeration supplied to the membranes and the aeration of the biological tanks, using an advanced control system permitting lower air consumption (energy consumption) as well as cutting down on the generation of GH gases (NOx and CO2). It also eliminates emergent pollutants and, when necessary, sludge filterability by adding substances to the activated sludge through automatically controlled dosing.

The final objective will be to create a self-sufficient treatment plant where the energy required for the plant is produced in the plant itself via the obtainment of biogas or other renewable energies. In this regard, the new technologies being developed are aimed at increasing sustainability in the water treatment sector.

The LIFE-BRAINYMEM research project led by ACCIONA Agua aims to reduce energy consumption in treatment plants and minimize their environmental impact by reducing both GHG emissions to the atmosphere and emergent pollutants in the water, significantly mitigating the environmental impact of the plants.

As mentioned by environmentalists time and again, the only effective way to combat the effects of pollution is through a collective effort on all levels. What might be seemingly insignificant would pose a great threat if it was performed on a much larger scale. So, do what you can to help save the environment, do it well, and be consistent.

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