On this week's episode, I talk about your sewage system and things that don't belong in it. Tune in to learn more!
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Music by Richie Colosimo - @parmageddon_
Artwork by Bronson Lockwood - @bronson.lockwood
Hi everyone! Welcome to Eco Go Go where we bring sustainable tips to your doorstep. I'm your host Elyse Kardos. I hope you're all finally listening to this on your favorite podcast app of choice. Eco Go Go is now available on platforms like Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Apple Podcast along with so many others. So this is really exciting!
Thanks for tuning into the third episode. Our topic this week was suggested by a listener and a very close friend Clara Everett. Clara was very curious about things that shouldn't go down the drain such as medications. Well Clara so am I. So this week's episode is called don't dump that down the drain.
We have three terms to cover this week. Biochemical Oxygen Demand, or the BOD, is the amount of dissolved oxygen that must be present in water in order for microorganisms to decompose the organic matter in the water. This is used to measure the degree of pollution. The second term is the Total Suspended Solids, or TSS, suspended particles or solids in a liquid that are not dissolved which can be filtered out. And the third term this week, Toxicants this is any toxic substance introduced into the environment.
Okay so I'm sure you're wondering what does this have anything to do with sustainability? Wastewater accounts for between 3 to 7% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. That's quite a bit. Wastewater treatment does not account for all things flushed down the drains and the toilets. Of 17 US facilities that were tested all wastewater discharge contained some form of microplastics and all of the samples showed roughly 4 million microparticles per facility per day. Buildup of grease, debris, and foreign objects in your sewage line and your local sewage line can cause blockages, overflows, and collapsing and this might cause sewage to enter your home or in some cases the great outdoors. And this makes people and other living beings ill and very negatively impacted. And sewage mishaps are much more common than you might think. It's still quite common for sewage systems to be mixed with storm water due to outdated or damaged systems. Household clogs tend to happen with a large influx of water and other extreme weather patterns.
And hello, climate change equals extreme temperature conditions and changes that make it really hard for wastewater management and treatment systems to adapt to the climate. You know they design the sewage systems in pipes in your area for the climate. So extreme temperature patterns that are not prepared for poses a problem. You know this has a lot to do with the environment and even in your own home your own backyard your septic system might be leaching into the groundwater. Sewage line issues and repairs are also super expensive so means that it's increasing the cost of the service that you're paying for.
So let's talk a bit about the process of the sewage system. This might be something you already know about or maybe you know the half of it but let's break it down. I got a lot of the information about this process from the Environmental Encyclopedia entry on sewage treatment. And I'll provide all links to all of my resources on the resources section of my website. More info on that later.
So how does your sewage system work? Waste comes from home businesses and industries and is anything that's going down your drain. So toilet water, sink water, kitchen water, clothes washer, dishwasher. There are typically discharge limits for the following things BOD, TSS, nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and toxicants. You know this is based off of the toxicity to certain test organisms cannot exceed a certain threshold.
So the stages of wastewater treatment. We start out with a preliminary treatment and this involves kind of flowing the wastewater through screening, grinding, grease removal, grit removal, and once all of that is done the screenings and grit are sent to a landfill. The grease is sent to a sludge handling facility specifically and from here it goes through further treatment. And grease, you know this is all just kind of the gross stuff, the excrement and the gross bits of the wastewater if you will.
And then we deal with the primary treatment which involves a gravity treatment to remove approximately 60% of the total suspended solids. That grease floats to the top and this grease that is skimmed is also combined with the sludge that settles at the bottom of the sedimentation tank in this process. Then we have the secondary treatment which is removing soluble organics from this. Most systems use a biological process such as an activated sludge system. It really depends on a ton of factors like the type of waste, the environment, the amount of time that all of the sludge and grease has been sitting. And some people, some treatment systems also use something called a biomass filter. Which involves taking a huge mass of some biological material and matter and filtering the grease and sediment, the gross sediment, all of the leftover waste water through this filter.
The next step within the secondary treatment is the secondary settling, which is just another step where we're letting all of the kind of stuff settle. We're letting gravity do the work with separating gross stuff from water. So the sludge and biomass generated from the steps before are sent to be treated. It could remain here for an average of 10 days and any sludge and biomass that is still generated from this process is sent to be treated in the next step or run through the system again until acceptable levels are reached.
Once acceptable levels are reached, disinfection happens in the process. This involves using something like chlorine to disinfect remaining wastewater in the process and, don't worry, this is dechlorinated before it's being discharged into the environment. Some plants might have a step before the disinfection process called the tertiary treatment or advancement treatment. This involves a large variety of further sanitation methods. And after that whole process everything is then released back into the waterways at the end of it all so essentially if you’re lucky if you live in a location where this is done right or has great regulations and standards surrounding this. The water is filtered to a quote-unquote acceptable standard however that does not mean that it is completely cleaned of all traces of human waste.
Things that we can't really filter out are microplastics. Let's talk a little bit more about how we might be having an impact on things getting released back into the environment that we might not want back into the environment. What we are flushing down our toilets and dumping down our drains and our sinks actually can make a difference. We can directly reduce the amount of toxicants that are making the way into the wastewater by simply not flushing those things into the wastewater. And I realize this poses a whole line of other issues that not dumping it into the drain and the toilet means it might end up in a landfill but that's why we're here.
We're trying to figure out what's the best solution of all of the solutions. Sometimes in this day and age that means that you're picking from some not ideal solutions. You're picking the lesser of evils if you will. So what are some things that don't go down the drain? Kitty litter is actually not supposed to go down the drain it's designed to clump and it tends to stick and combine in the sewage system with wet wipes, paper towels, baby wipes. Things like that do not belong in your toilet even when they say they’re flushable, they can cause tons of issues in your own sewage line or at the wastewater facility.
Medicine most likely doesn’t go down your drain. There are trace amounts of pharmaceuticals showing up in municipal water systems all across the US. And there's no proof that tiny amounts of this kind of medicine that we’re finding in the water supply, there's no proof that it's harmful to humans but, you know, I’d prefer none. Of course you know that we kind of have a challenge here because your own excrement also contains some of this medicine so some medicine pollution is unavoidable.
Cooking grease and oil does not belong down your drain. You should avoid dumping cooking grease and oil down your drain, in your sink. It can dry and harden in your drains causing a block. It can also dry and harden elsewhere. Kind of funny story here is that they can combine with... cooking grease and oil can combine in the sewage system with other solid human waste to form what has now officially been termed as a fatberg. Which is an iceberg of fat! It's really disgusting you can look up pictures of these online. Maybe I'll post one on Instagram so you can see but these have been turning up in New York sewers, London sewers, so many other sewage systems, they’re really gross. Cooking grease and oil can also be a great trap for things like eggshells and coffee grounds which can combine all together to kind of form of a plug in your sewage line. So just kind of avoiding the cooking grease and oil in the drain all together is ideal.
Microbeads, you might have heard about these, they were all in the news a couple of years ago and you know a lot of research around these has really grown over the years. But microbeads are tiny little plastics, tiny little microplastics, and they are abrasives. They’re typically found in face washes and skin cleansers that are exfoliators. These tiny little microbeads, when you wash your face and then rinse off all the face wash with your water, they go down your sink in your drain. They don't really get filtered out too well at the wastewater facility they make up a ton of invisible plastic pollution in the ocean, waterways, and even in our own water glasses.
Microbeads have been found in species of birds in Florida and humans and in rivers all around.. all around the world it's it's really scary.
Feminine hygiene products, the microorganisms in the sewage systems and lines are not well equipped to deal with these kinds of things they don't really break down well. They do cause tons of clogs and backups.
Pause for a quick water break.
Thank you so much for bearing with me while I got a drink of water. Let's get into the good stuff. How can we help as good Samaritans and citizens? What can you do to dispose of some of these things that I mentioned properly? And I know there are tons and tons and tons of things we can talk about that belong down your drain and don't belong down your drain, but these are some of the main things that I found in my research that kept coming up and these are the things I will touch on.
If if there are some other things that you are curious about shoot me a message. I'd love to hear it I'd love to look into it a little more for you. So, kitty litter doesn't belong down your toilet. So what should we do? We should seal it tightly in a bag or container and dispose of this in the trash. Not ideal, I agree. They do make natural litter alternatives. I haven't done any research, any scientific research as to whether or not these are actually a lot more sustainable or how much of an impact they have otherwise. Some products I did see though that got a lot of great reviews were surrounded around Tofu Cat Litter. Check out some others on the market if you're interested a lot of them seem to have tons of pros and cons. It looks like Arm & Hammer had one that a lot of people swore by. So this might be a great alternative for you and more sustainable and compostable even in some circumstances.
Medicine, we brought this up, it does not likely, it likely does not belong down your drain or in your toilet or otherwise. So what can you do with medicine that you don't need anymore? You can look for a local collection day or events in your area. There are some Chemists, Pharmacies, or community organizations that may run one in your area. I know I was able to just Google Maps “drug disposal near me” and the locations actually popped up pretty easily. Apparently CVS and Rite Aid have free disposal programs right down the street from me so that's pretty exciting.
If you do not see a local collection event or area that you can drop off your unused medicine safely, keep this medicine stored away in a safe place. Crush it up and mix it with something like kitty litter and coffee grounds. This is just to make it undesirable so if someone were to encounter it they wouldn't really be able to take him without consuming a lot of nasty toxic stuff. And then you can wait for the next collection event or seal this into something airtight and dispose of it in your garbage can. This is the least ideal way to dispose of your medicine obviously because it will eventually open back up into the environment. It will just leach back into the groundwater at some point or another which is why I recommend finding a different way to dispose of your medicine other than garbage can. In some cases your medication might actually be safe to dispose of in the toilet.
Check out resources in your country or region. I know the US has a site from the FDA that actually lists what medications can be safely disposed of in your toilet. There are also some alternatives in the event that it is not. These medications on the list are typically high-risk medications like painkillers and other things that you definitely don't want individuals getting into. You can check out medlineplus.gov, search your medication there will actually also be suggestions on disposal methods in the fine print of the medication. This is the hardest when doctors, especially in America, love just treating things with medicine and trying you on different things. You start a medication, you realize it doesn't really work for you anymore, and then you have all this extra medication that now you are left with. So if you foresee that you don't need a certain medication then don't get it. Just don't get more medication than you need.
I know there was actually a lot of research on people who kept a lot of medications thinking they might need it at a later time or they got it preemptively thinking they might end up using it. Just don't do it if you can help it.
As for the products with microbeads, look for more sustainable alternatives if you can. There are tons of greener products out there with natural exfoliants. You can even make your own all natural healthy exfoliant using ingredients like oats, sugar, salt, and other herbal extracts like cucumber extract. There are tons of ingredients you can use to exfoliate your skin naturally without the use of microplastics in microbeads.
For cooking grease and oil find a container that you're planning on disposing of and dump all of your cooking grease into that container. When that container is full, seal it off and dispose of it in your household trash bag. If the oil is too hot to put in the container, just let it cool and then scrape it off into that container at a later time. Make sure you're using a container that is non-breakable and is sealable. The idea is not to let this stuff out. Frying oil may be reused as long as it's clean. There are also recipes to make soap out of used cooking oil, I found quite a few recipes online. I'm definitely going to give it a shot when I have enough saved up. I think that's a fun idea to really turn your waste into something usable. Check out terracycle.com, they always have so many unique ways and routes for recycling and reusing products. There might be a service that you're able to subscribe to to regularly recycle your cooking oil. So give it a shot I think I saw one in my area it required a subscription service but I'm certainly open to it if it means that this is all getting put to good use.
For wipes and other things like feminine hygiene products, these should be thrown in the garbage at all costs. Even if they say that the baby wipe or the tampon or otherwise can be flushed down the toilet, it's best to just throw it in the garbage can. And again I know this is unfortunate that this end up in a landfill, so it's much better to invest in some reusable alternatives so you don't have to throw anything in the landfill or you throw much less in the landfill. You can buy reusable baby wipes. These are trending online, there are tons of different companies and ways that you can buy these sustainably-sourced wipes. For menstruation you can invest in a Diva cup, period underwear, and a ton of other awesome sustainable alternatives to the traditional pad and tampon. There are so many out there. I know a lot of people who have tried the period underwear that they really like it. Lots that you can do to reduce your carbon footprint here. They even make sustainable reusable towels for your kitchen.
And those are my tips for things that you should not dump down your drain. That is hard to say 10 times fast or even one time fast sometimes.
And now for the Eco activity of the week. I just cancelled my subscription to Fabletics. My friend Barbara asked them recently for information on their manufacturing methods and practices and they responded with it's a “secret recipe” and they had no further information and pushed her aside essentially. So tune in next week to find out more about fast fashion and sustainability. This is a really exciting episode and something we could all benefit from learning a little more about.
Thank you again for listening and supporting Eco Go Go everyone! This episode was inspired by a listener so I would really love to hear what else you're all curious about or ways of your life that you can be greener with. Let me know. My website is finally ready and you can send me messages on the contact page! If you also want you can also listen to Eco Go Go right from there or find my episode transcripts and resources. Head on over to ecogogo.org for more information. Thank you so much for listening. A special thanks to Richie for the show tunes and Bronson for the artwork. And until next time have a green week!