ways to reduce water pollution

Water pollution is hurting our marine life, our environment, and populations around the world – and the pollutants that enter our waters aren’t just single use plastics! Waterways and bodies of water are polluted when harmful substances like chemicals or toxic waste contaminate them.

When waters are polluted millions of people lose access to safe drinking water, leading to disease and even death: 80% of diseases around the world are related to poor-quality drinking water.

In addition, ecosystems aren’t able to support the complex ecosystems that depend on clean, unpolluted water. Knowing all of the disastrous effects of water pollution, many people are looking to make a change in their personal lives, and find ways to reduce water pollution.

In this article, we’ll explore several different ways to reduce water pollution in your home, work, and personal life, and why these changes matter.

16 ways to reduce water pollution and help look after our planet

While a large percentage of the world’s water pollution is caused by large-scale industrial, agricultural, and maritime transit operations, each individual still plays a role in reducing water pollution.

While some of these ways to reduce water pollution may not surprise you, some you may not know. In fact, some of these suggestions shine a light on how certain acts can actually lead to increased pollution levels!

Let’s take a closer look at the different ways to reduce water pollution.

1. Pick up litter and dispose of it properly

One of the best ways to reduce water pollution is to prevent it at the source: by disposing of waste properly. In fact, 60% of water pollution today can be attributed to litter.

recycling bins
Responsible litter disposal implies sorting trash and recycling whatever is possible to recycle

Waste that litters our roads, fields, and sidewalks often flows into nearby drains and streams when it rains. When the litter degrades, chemicals and microparticles are released. 

Chemicals and other pollutants from this litter can negatively impact the environment and wildlife in waterways. Cigarette butts are a common example of litter that can seriously damage the natural environment. They can contain chemicals like arsenic and formaldehyde that will seep into soil, and in turn, freshwater sources.

2. Dispose of chemicals and fuel properly

It’s important to know that you should never pour used motor oil or antifreeze down a storm drain, onto the soil, into a waterway, or into the sanitary sewer. All of these drains flow into rivers, meaning this harmful substance will certainly make its way to wreak havoc on the natural life of your waterway.

So how can you dispose of it?

Put used oil or antifreeze in a sturdy container and take it to a local service station or other approved center.

Your community may have a recycling center that will accept the used motor oil and recycle it. Community collection centers and drop-off sites also exist in some areas.

It’s even a good idea to label the container, so others will know that allowing liquids other than storm water to get into the drain leads to the pollution of lakes and streams.

3. Mulch or compost grass or yard waste

In many places around the world, leaves and grass are important parts of the natural environment. Left on land, leaves decompose, feeding your plants and enriching your soil. 

However, these same leaves and yard waste can lead to problematic water pollution. When large amounts of leaves are washed off our lawns, down our driveways, and into storm drains, they make their way into our water bodies; they release phosphorus and nitrogen into our water, contributing to water pollution.

a pile of garden waste compost
If you have an outdoor space, it doesn’t take much effort to create a compost bin for your yard waste

There are a few potential solutions to this issue, however:

  • Your city may be able to dispose of your leaves and yard waste – you can bag your leaves for curbside pick-up.
  • You can also mix your leaves into your compost pile, creating a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your plants.
  • Using a mulching mower, you can create mulch from your leaves to use in flower beds.
  • Leave leaves and yard waste in your front yard if you can’t compost them – avoid blowing leaves into the street and clogging and damaging storm drains.

4. Don’t pour fat and grease down the drain

Most of the dishes we cook leave some sort of fat, oil, or grease residue behind. These substances should never be disposed of down the drain in your kitchen.

When poured down the drain, fat and grease can build up over time and clog your pipes. This will lead to sewer pipes clogging and even backing up into your yard and basement. It can also lead to water pollution by carrying contaminants to local bodies of water.

Instead, grease, fat, and used cooking oil should be disposed of in the trash or kept in a glass jar for disposal with other solid waste.

5. Minimize your use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers

In the continental U.S., about half a million tons of pesticides, 12 million tons of nitrogen, and 4 million tons of phosphorus fertilizer are applied annually to crops. These chemicals can cause critical damage to our waters through the soil, runoff, and air.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends several techniques for large-scale farm operations to mitigate these effects, such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which encourages natural barriers and limits pesticide use.

tractor spraying pesticides
Minimizing the use of chemical pesticides not only prevents water pollution but has a beneficial effect on the soil quality

At home, however, you can do your part by minimizing your use of fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn and gardens. You can also select plants that are native to the area and can thrive in your landscape’s natural conditions. In turn, you will have to fertilize them less and use less water in the long run.

If you must use fertilizers, make sure to blow or sweep it back onto your grass if it gets onto paved areas, and avoid applying fertilizer on the grass right before it rains, so it doesn’t wash into storm drains and waterways.

6. Use the minimum amount of laundry detergent

Laundry detergent and other cleaning products contain chemicals like phosphates that are harmful to our waters and marine life.

Phosphates lead to algae blooms and kill fish and other aquatic animals by reducing the oxygen in the water. Soaps and detergents can also break up oil and send it lower into the water column, causing damage to more marine organisms.

When spilled in our waterways, soaps and detergents in and of themselves are actually a pollutant that may be harmful.

By cutting down on detergent, or using phosphate-free detergent, you can further cut down on water pollution from your own home. There are plenty of effective natural laundry detergents that you can substitute for chemically-intensive detergents in your home.

7. Dispose of medical waste properly

Never flush pills, powders, or liquid medicines down the toilet or dump them outside, whether on land or water. These drugs can accumulate in the water and be consumed by fish and other wildlife.

a bottle with pink pills
Never flush or dump medical waste – it most certainly will negatively impact the environment

Hormones and other compounds end up causing a variety of health problems in fish and birds and contaminate drinking water that people and livestock use.

Studies have found that medicines flushed down the drain can contaminate our lakes and streams and eventually end up in our drinking water. This can lead to adverse reactions for some people and even cases of accidental poisoning.  

University of Minnesota researchers have also detected antibiotics used for human and animal treatment at low levels in lakes, rivers, and streams throughout Minnesota. The U.S. Geological Survey has also found antibiotics in groundwater in both non-agricultural and urban areas.

8. Avoid using a garbage disposal

Depending on where you live, the garbage disposal in your kitchen can also lead to harmful environmental effects like water pollution.

Near large bodies of water, garbage disposals will wash food scraps down the drain and into bodies of water that can be contaminated by the high levels of nitrogen in food waste. Nitrogen can harm local marine and plant life significantly.

It’s best to keep your solid waste solid, experts say, and opt for a compost pile from food scraps when possible.

9. Check your sump pump or cellar drain

If your home has a sump pump or cellar drain, you can check to make sure that it does not drain into the local sanitary sewer system. This connection often dumps harmful biological waste, cleaning chemicals, heavy metals, and more into the system.

As we know, local sewer systems drain straight into rivers, streams, and other bodies of water.

cellar drain pipe
While not so obvious, a useful tip is to check that your cellar drain does not contaminate the local sewer system

At home, you can do your part when it comes to going green and preventing water pollution by checking your sump pump or cellar drain connection. If you’re not sure, you can contact your city’s local pollution control department.

10. Eat more organic food

Organic foods are not only better for you, but opting for organic is also a big way to reduce water pollution.

Organic foods tend to be cultivated with few synthetic chemicals, and in turn, they result in less chemical pollution in waterways.

The process of organic farming also can be used to reduce water pollution in the U.S., as studies have found. The leaching of nitrate from farming soil into water drainage systems is a major source of water pollution in the upper Midwestern state of the U.S.

In an attempt to reduce the environmental impacts associated with heavy fertilizer use in conventional agriculture, some producers have begun to investigate organic methods.

All in all, agriculture is one of the largest culprits of water pollution around the world. From fertilizer and pesticide use, to the synthetic chemicals used to preserve foods and the fuel used to power equipment, all of these factors play a part in increasing water pollution.

By opting for less chemically-intensive foods, individuals can make a difference in the quality of our waters.

11. Try to avoid buying plastic items

Plastics, like most waste, can end up in a landfill. When improperly managed, waste from landfills make its way into our ocean and bodies of water. From plastic shopping bags to bottles to tupperware, all of these products can cause water pollution at a large scale.

Plastics break down slowly in some waters, but usually, end up degrading the water quality with toxic compounds and harming human and animal health.

plastic free food storage containers
Nowadays, avoiding plastic isn’t so hard; plus it’s hugely beneficial for our planet

Microplastics have been detected in water worldwide, including in our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. In these waterways, the microplastics end up in the water we drink and the fish we eat, including shellfish.

Thus, one of the best ways to reduce water pollution is to avoid buying and using new plastic items, especially those that are not accepted at your local recycling facility. There are some great alternatives on the market to replace commonly-used plastic products like plastic wrap, sippy cups, and trash bags

12. Plant some trees

It may surprise you to find out that deforestation is one of the main causes of water pollution. Healthy forests can act as a filter to keep pollution out of water, anchoring soil against erosion and helping the forest absorb nutrients.

Trees also help protect water quality by capturing, storing, and using rainfall. In doing so, they reduce the amount of runoff that carries pollution off of the landscape and into nearby rivers and lakes. This process also decreases the rate and volume of stormwater flowing through local storm sewers.

In this way, one of the best ways to reduce water pollution is to plant some trees! If you live in an urban area, a healthy tree canopy is especially important. Trees provide other health benefits like helping heat and cool buildings, filtering air pollution, and more.

Select some species that are native to your area, and in no time your trees will begin improving air quality and doing their part in reducing water pollution. If you lack the space, try to find a local communal garden or space to plant some trees elsewhere in your community.

13. Keep your vehicles from leaking

It’s important to maintain your vehicle’s maintenance, not only to save money, but also to prevent oil and other fuels from leaking onto the road. Leaky seals, hoses, and gaskets often leak fluid from cars and end up in the local water table, or runoff into nearby streams, rivers, and other bodies of water.

oil spills into a sewer drain
Car oil spills end up in the sewer system, polluting water and aquatic environments

Oil and other fuels do not dissolve in water, and are toxic to people, wildlife, and plants and can disturb natural aquatic environments.

These toxic substances can last a long time and stick to everything in and near an aquatic environment, from sand to bird feathers. To prevent leaks from our cars getting onto roads and washed into storm drains, regular vehicle maintenance is important.

14. Shop with water pollution in mind

Like your food choices, your shopping tendencies can make a difference when it comes to finding ways to reduce water pollution. The textile industry is one of the largest culprits for releasing pollutants into our waters.

This is because textile processing involves applying vast amounts of chemicals to fabrics – over 8,000 synthetic chemicals, in fact. It’s estimated that around 20% of all water pollution worldwide comes from the dyeing of textiles.

But how does making clothes lead to water pollution? Water is used during the process of applying chemicals and dye to fabrics and this contaminated water is often dumped back into rivers and other waterways.

a person dyeing a piece of fabric in a bucket with water
Even when using natural dyes, the fabric dyeing process requires a vast amount of water

To reduce the water pollution that results from textile production, try to only buy brand new clothes when you need them, and opt for second-hand clothing wherever you can. This reduces the amount of new clothing that must be produced and thus the water required to create them.

You can also recycle your clothes for a more sustainable wardrobe, or shop locally to limit the pollution that comes from transporting goods long distances.

15. Support environmental charities

To directly make a difference in reducing water pollution, there are several nonprofits that are making clean, unpolluted waters available throughout the world. Supporting these organizations, whether by monetary donations or volunteering can help them maximize their influence.

Some examples of these non-profits include Water.org, U.S. Water Alliance, Water for People, and the Water Project.  

16. Cut down on meat consumption

You may not have known that changing up your diet, even once a week, can make a huge difference when it comes to reducing water pollution.

Raising and housing animals requires large amounts of water – in the U.S. especially, slaughterhouses raise millions of animals per year for consumption – more than 8 billion chickens, 100 million hogs, and 30 million beef cattle.

chickens on a chicken farm
Meat and poultry plants are huge contributors to groundwater contamination

All of the resources that these animals require are often contaminated and disposed of improperly. Most meat and poultry plants in the U.S. release contaminants into drinking water systems and soil, which in turn contaminates groundwater. These contaminants can include nitrate, nitrite, and fecal coliform, as well as byproducts like chlorine.

These chemicals can not only harm drinking water, they’re also toxic to plants and animals in local ecosystems.

Final thoughts on the ways to reduce water pollution

If you’re looking to live a greener life and care about bettering your area, these are sure ways to reduce water pollution, improve drinking water, and create cleaner aquatic ecosystems in your area.

From making easy switches from plastic, cleaning products, and laundry detergent in your home, to properly disposing of chemicals and cooking oil, it’s often not hard to play your part in reducing pollutants in our waters.

If you observe a possible violation of environmental laws and regulations in the U.S. like illegal dumping of pollutants, you can also report it to the EPA via this form.

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