oil spill

10 Ways You're Polluting Water Without Realizing It

Wet wipes, microbeads, fatbergs: Keep H20 clean of pollutants with our handy guide. 

July 23, 2015

As a good steward for the well-being of planet Earth, you’re highly conscious of limiting the water pollution you create. Understanding how nitrogen-rich fertilizers can pollute waterways, leading to toxic algal blooms, you’re using organic fertilizer for your organic garden. That’s great. But there are a host of other potential contaminants that you should be aware of, that you might not realize are causing problems. 

When You Wash Your Face
In recent years, microbeads have emerged as one of the top ten enemies to waterways. As the name suggests, they’re tiny little plastic beads that some companies use in products like exfoliators and toothpaste. When the little buggers go down the drain, they are too small to be  removed by waste treatment facilities, and they end up in the water, where fish eat them, thinking they’re food. Microbeads just so happen to be perfect for soaking up toxins, which are then passed on through the food chain when fish ingest them. Some states have outlawed them, and certain companies have begun to phase them out—but they’re still in use. Make sure the beauty products you use don’t have microbeads in them (check labels for polyethylene and polypropylene; refer to lists by Beat the Microbead of bead-free products), and support the effort to outlaw such plastics.  


When You Walk The Dog
Not picking up after Fido during your morning walk? Those leftovers can be washed into freshwater resources—or the ocean if you’re taking a walk on the beach—resulting in bacterial contamination harmful to aquatic life and humans. Not to mention the fact that the nutrients in pet waste can contibute to the growth of algae and weeds that clog waterways and kill fish.  The EPA identified the problem as so severe that it placed dog waste in the same category as toxic waste. Be sure to grab the canine doody with a plastic bag, and put it in the trash instead. You can also flush it, but don’t do that with cat droppings. Not all waste treatment plants can remove the feline parasite Toxoplasma gondii. 

When You Wash The Car
Getting that new sedan sparkling clean with a hose-down and suds at the curb? A satisfying pastime, to be sure, but one with unintended consequences. The washoff of detergent, motor oil, and other car contaminants from the road surface into storm drains can pollute waterways. Opt to skip the home spraydown, or take the car to a professional car wash, which recycles wash water or is required to have filters that clean out pollutants.

Related: The Organic Way To Wash Your Car

When You Go To The Bathroom
Once only used for babies and by germ-paranoid folk (for desanitizing hands and surfaces), wet wipes are now picked up much more freqently by adults to clean up after doing their business in the bathroom. But the wipes dissolve in water, don’t they? Not so much. Wet wipes have created massive problems in the water infrastructures in cities like London, New York City, and elsewhere. If you’re using wet wipes for your baby’s bottom or your own—and here we recommend the much better solution of dampened toilet paper—put them in the trash. 


When You Cook
When cleaning off pots after a meal, dispose of cooking oil and grease in the garbage. The viscous qualities of these fats means that they will accumulate not just in your own pipes but in the sewer lines of the area where you live. When that happens, pipes get constricted or blocked to the extent that raw sewage can back up or overflow onto streets. When grease gets cold, it coalesces with things like wet wipes to form massive fatbergs as big as a schoolbus in wastewater infrastructure. Put the grease in the trash. 

When You Smoke
You roll your own, of course, and when you’ve had your smoke, you just toss the butt aside. Not so fast, Steve McQueen. Cigarette butts were the No. 1 marine litter item found during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. Put out that sucker ,and then put it in a trash receptacle, or if there’s not one nearby, take it with you. Whenever near the beach, a stream, or other body of water, maintain the same “leave no trash behind” approach you would have when hiking: If you pack it in, pack it out. 

When You Take Medicine
You’re doing what your mom told you to do with old medicines, which is flush them down the toilet, so that no one can use them or get poisoned by them. Yet someone can: First, flushed pharmaceuticals end up back in the drinking water supply, leading to a continual low-level exposure of antibiotics, antidepressants, and other drugs that ain’t good for anyone. Second, those old meds, ingested by marine life, can cause a host of problems, and they’ve been implicated in the mutation of fish that show both male and female characteristics. Instead of flushing the drugs, take them to government-organized takebacks in your area. 


When You Mow The Lawn
If you live adjacent to a stream or other waterway and you’re mowing to the edge of the waterway, you should stop and allow a native habitat to flourish in a band next to the water. Consult your local water conservation organization about how to establish a riparian buffer zone, an area where native flora grow alongside waterways like creeks, streams, and rivers. The plants absorb pollutants that would otherwise find their way from landscaped areas into waterways, and they provide protection to your property when waterways flood. Another important plus for such buffer zones: They provide habitat for endangered species.  

When You Go For A Hike
You’re a nature lover, so a hike is like catnip. Just be sure you’re not carrying invasive species along with you on your next jaunt. If you have plant matter in the mud on your hiking boots, take some time to clean it off. You could be carrying seeds or other plant-propagating material for invasive plants that can clog waterways, out-compete native plants for water resources, and cause erosion, leading to water pollution. 

When You Go For A Boat Ride
Boating is a engaging, fun recreation, but not everyone on the water knows the proper protocols for making sure that it doesn’t pollute waterways. Fuel spills can contaminate waters, so the Coast Guard recommends filling the tank to 90 percent of its capacity. Anti-fouling agents used to remove built-up gunk on boat hulls can introduce toxins to waterways; instead, water advocates advise cleaning the boat hull regularly with a freshwater spray and a more biodegradable solution of vinegar and water. Visit the Ocean Conservancy for quick tips and its handy, incredibly thorough Good Mate guide for more.