Many of us take toilets for granted. We excrete our waste in toilet bowls, flush it down, and go on with our lives without thinking about where our excrement goes. While many people advocate for a better climate, they fail to recognize everyday issues that are contributing to global warming.
Sewage can be managed with two systems: a municipal water-treatment plant or a septic tank. Sewage plants are used by 80% of Americans, where a pipe connected to a toilet is connected to a network that moves waste all the way back to the plant. The waste goes through three treatments to separate and break down bacteria before being disposed of in a nearby body of water. Although the idea of treated waste being disposed of in our surrounding rivers and lakes sounds unappealing and dirty, scientists have confirmed that this practice is safe unless, of course, the plant malfunctions. Additionally, some sewers combine human waste, stormwater runoff, and industrial waste. After heavy rainfall, however, an increased amount of waste goes through storm drains, and pollutants can spill out into bodies of water. For example, spills resulting from such overflows in the Ohio River can travel all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, where 40% of America’s commercial seafood is caught. On the other hand, septic tanks require individuals to clean and dispose of their waste by themselves. As human waste fills these tanks, they are also partially decomposing. Afterwards, the drainfield disperses the waste into the soil where natural microbes can remove harmful molecules.
Although scientists have ensured that these waste disposal plans are safe for our environment, when something goes wrong, the results can be catastrophic. Aging treatment plants suffer more issues, which then can cause spills into our water. Many sewers in America are outdated, causing anywhere from 23 to 75 thousand spills per year, which results in three to ten billion tons of waste polluting our environment. The American sewage system dates back to the late 1800s, and many systems are outdated. As population increases, sewage pipes are being strained and aren’t equipped to handle the massive increase in waste. Additionally, some septic tanks don’t actually work. People from low income backgrounds have poor tanks or none at all; their broken systems can cause back ups in sinks and bathtubs, resulting in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. The government attempts to regulate and counter these conditions by illegalizing broken or poor sewage systems, but some people cannot afford to fix their systems. As a result, they not only must live in such conditions but also may possibly be incarcerated for it. On the other end of the spectrum, the extremely wealthy tear apart our environment by wasting large amounts of water. One zip code in San Francisco, 94528, consists of only 12 houses but uses over one million gallons of water per year with no consequences.
Waste can flood into agriculture, destroying crops that many workers rely on for profit and raising the prices of consumer goods that many Americans take for granted. Additionally, those that live near sewage plants or storm drains could actually be stepping in human waste. After a heavy storm, overflow from the drains and pipes can also release waste into nearby areas where people swim or drink from. Studies show that pathogens that normally would not appear after a plant properly treats the waste, have begun to wash into lakes and rivers that people use. Additionally, ER visits for gastrointestinal distress increase after rainfall. Sewer systems are so backlogged that cities have begun experiencing overflows with less than a quarter inch of rain.
Solving these issues caused by outdated systems is the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) priority. Restructuring sewer systems costs millions of dollars and inconveniences many Americans; however, this step is necessary to improving our environment. Portland, Oregon invested 500 million USD into their sewer system, and now the city only has five to ten spills per year, a great change compared to their previous 50-100. Rain gardens and green roofs can also help divert stormwater from the drains to plants. There is no single approach to solving America’s failing sewage system. We must be conscious of what goes down our toilets, how fertilizers, pesticides, and trash can affect our environment, and take personal responsibility when disposing of our waste, whether it’s consumer trash or human matter.
Evans, Mary Anna. “Flushing the Toilet Has Never Been Riskier.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 17 Sept. 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/09/americas-sewage-crisis-public-health/405541/
Sorrel, Charlie. “California's Richest Water Users Waste Millions of Gallons a Year.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 30 Oct. 2015, https://www.fastcompany.com/3052623/californias-richest-water-users-waste-millions-of-gallons-a-year`.
“The Sources and Solutions: Wastewater.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 20 Apr. 2022, https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/sources-and-solutions-wastewater
Vock, Daniel C. “America Has a Sewage Problem.” Governing the Future of States and Localities, Governing, 21 Apr. 2021, https://www.governing.com/archive/gov-sewage-septic-tank-pollution-health.html.
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