Australians are cleaning up the environment on the S-turn


Every day, tons of garbage that should have been put in the trash leaves homes across Australia, goes down sewers and ends up in water treatment plants across the country.

It is a revolting cocktail that can usually include underwear, plastic, wet wipes, headphones, dental floss, cigarette butts, tampons, condoms, sewage and gray water from countless kitchens, bathrooms and laundries.

The soup also includes drugs that have been flushed down the toilet, antibiotics and pain relievers, hormones and cholesterol lowering drugs.

This is a big, costly problem for the companies that manage the country’s wastewater infrastructure. But it is also a problem for the environment.

To understand why, it’s important to know that whatever evaporates in household sinks, pipes and toilets ends up mixing.

When the concoction arrives at a sewage plant, screens are used to remove waste that shouldn’t be there.

It is then processed to a high level and discharged into the ocean or into the rivers that empty into the sea.

Adam Lovell is the Executive Director of the Water Services Association of Australia. Its members are utility companies that provide water and sanitation services to millions of people in Australia and New Zealand.

He knows a thing or two about the environmental damage that can result when the sewage system is treated as a waste disposal unit.

A prime example, he says, is the well-known problem with so-called “rinse-out” wipes. Sure, they can be rinsed off, but they shouldn’t be because they don’t break down.

Lack of fatbergs

They then accumulate in the sewers, creating the perfect base for “fatbergs” or “whitebergs” which can grow quickly, block pipes and send untreated sewage to flow into streams.

“I have seen appalling images where they are all over the greenery around the bed of a stream,” he says.

“People, in general, use the toilet as a trash can. But it’s not. It’s really for the three Ps – pee, poo, and paper.

“That’s what they’re designed for and work for. They remove the waste, they are treated very well, to very good standards, and they are returned to the environment without much hassle.

Mr Lovell is delighted that a solution to fatbergs and whitebergs is imminent, with work well advanced on a new Australian standard for wet wipes to ensure they break down when rinsed off.

But what about all the other bad guys who cause trouble? There are a few simple changes Australians can make around the home that will make a huge difference.

The kitchen sink

Food in the wastewater stream is a problem because it increases what is called biochemical oxygen demand (BOD).

BOD is a measure of the amount of dissolved oxygen that microorganisms need to break down nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

Water with high BOD can weaken the sewage system by eating away at pipes and requires more energy to be treated for reuse.

If wastewater with high BOD enters natural streams, it can suck oxygen from receiving waters, causing fish death and ecosystem changes.

But keeping food out of the sewage is easy: use a filter that’s in the hole in the plug and when you need to get rid of sloppy food, wrap it in newspaper and throw it away.

The bathroom

The message here is clear and simple: toilets are not garbage cans.

They are only designed for human waste and some toilet paper. They should definitely not be used to eliminate unwanted drugs.

Last year, a study involving three Australian universities routinely detected pharmaceuticals in the surface waters of the Brisbane River, Sydney Harbor and the Yarra River in Melbourne.

And a survey by Australia’s Return Unwanted Medicines (RUM) program found that around 20% of people flush unwanted drugs down the toilet.

Program manager Toni Riley says most of the drugs people take are excreted in the urine, so there will always be some in the water.

“But we don’t need to add more. When they enter waterways, they can enter our food production areas.

“There has been quite a bit of work in the United States on the feminization of fish that is happening there because of the amount of hormones in the water. So there are huge impacts.

The vast majority of Australian pharmacies are part of the free RUM program, which collects unwanted drugs and ensures their safe incineration.

Laundry and sewers

It goes without saying that laundry sinks and outdoor drains don’t have a place for gasoline, grease, oil, pesticides and herbicides, paint, and solvents like paint stripper.

They are toxic, harmful, and can be difficult to remove in the water treatment process.

Boards across Australia offer safe disposal systems for chemicals and other hazardous materials. Detailed advice on what to do with specific substances can be found here:

Mr Lovell says the urban water industry will be part of achieving a truly circular economy in Australia, focused on as much reuse and recycling as possible.

“The past was this linear system – catching water in a dam, sending it to a drinking water treatment plant, it goes to a tap and is used in the house, then it is sent back into the system. sewers, a sewage treatment plant and a river or ocean, ”he said.

But the future will be different, with some wastewater treatment plants already turning into resource recovery centers with the intention of harnessing the country’s raw sewage.

“You want to keep everything that is unnecessary out of the wastewater stream, because we want to reuse that water for the best available purposes.

“We want to use the carbon in it, we want to capture nitrogen and phosphorus, we want to capture the heat, potentially, and reuse it.”

For Australian households, the message is clear: less is more when it comes to what goes into sewers and toilets.


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