lake tales: waste to water
Ever wondered why Lake Ontario is so polluted? Could it be that we are partly to blame? Bare Market blogger Lily Li examines the impact that we have on our local water systems and how we can take steps as conscious consumers to clean up our act.
Waste to Water - How Our Waste Impacts Lake Ontario
We all recognize that more waste is bad for the environment. The thought of another plastic bag floating in the ocean is motivation enough for us to carry our canvas tote bag everywhere we go. We may live out the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—but are we having as much of an impact as we think?
Our relationship with waste is one that’s often disconnected - we haul our garbage bins outside once a week or drop trash bags down convenient chutes, never to be seen again!
We do our best to recycle and compost properly, but let’s be honest, there are still some things we’re not sure what to do with or don’t fully understand. Can I flush dental floss down my toilet? Where does my waste really go anyway?
And even if we mess up, it’s not like anyone will hunt us down or send the trash back up the chute.
Where Does Our Waste Go?
A big challenge with our modern day waste management system is that we don’t see what happens to our trash! How can we care about the trash we make when we’re blind to the impacts of our waste footprint on the environment around us?
In Toronto, trash gets transported to landfill near London, Ontario. Anything that is not compostable, or recyclable gets buried here. Of course, not all our waste ends up in landfill. What about the litter on the street that gets washed down the drain and ends up in Lake Ontario?
We often don’t put much thought towards wastewater as part of our waste management system. Wastewater is what residents and businesses flush down toilets, sinks and drains.
Toronto’s wastewater system was built in 1917 at Ashbridges Bay, which was the main treatment plant. Today, there are four wastewater treatment plants in the GTA that filter and clean our wastewater before it is released back to Lake Ontario. These four plants treat both wastewater and stormwater runoff.
This is why when it rains, there is a higher burden on the wastewater treatment plants to filter more water, often leading to untreated water (sometimes carrying e-coli from lingering dog droppings) returning to Lake Ontario.
Our wastewater is processed in 4 main stages: preliminary, primary, secondary, and disinfection. OK - let’s break this down, real quick: In preliminary treatment, larger pieces of rock, branches, and garbage are strained from the water. Next, the primary stage removes organic solid matter, creating biosolids used for fertilizer in agriculture. In the secondary stage, wastewater is treated with microscopic organisms that eat pollutants in the water, removing phosphorus in the process. Finally, wastewater is disinfected before being released into our rivers and lakes.
Great, sounds like our highly advanced wastewater filtration plants are keeping our lakes clean and maintaining peace in the ecosystem. So what’s the problem? Why is Lake Ontario still so polluted? Here’s how we can do better…
#1: Don’t flush stuff that shouldn’t be flushed
Come on, we’ve probably all flushed stuff we shouldn’t have from time to time. It’s not common knowledge that our pipes were originally designed to protect us from diseases and public health concerns, not just for a convenient waste disposal system. The rule of thumb is that the ONLY things toilets are designed to handle are urine, feces, and toilet paper. Everything else, like tampons, condoms, pills, flushable wipes, cotton swabs, food waste, dental floss, and even paper towels are culprits for causing the 1600 water main breaks in Toronto each year.
Wipes (baby, cleaning, yes even flushable ones—there is no industry standard for “flushability”) are one of the leading causes of clogging in our wastewater system, and they contribute to sewer overflows around the GTA. These overflows often enter rivers, streams, and eventually Lake Ontario, unfiltered. Also, wipes are made of synthetic materials like polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene (ew!). Consider how that contributes to the microplastic contamination in lakes next time you want to flush a wipe.
#2: Using products containing chemicals that can’t be filtered
From body wash, hand soaps and sprays to detergents; our scented personal care products often use a synthetic musk. Many scented cleaning and personal care products contain galaxolide, a synthetic musk used to give a pine-fresh or lemony smell. Galaxolide was labeled as a highly concerning chemical by GreenScreen® (a tool that identifies hazardous chemicals and safer alternatives) because it doesn’t break down easily, builds up over time, and is toxic to aquatic life.
Synthetic musks contaminate water, soils, and are toxic for many aquatic species and impact the toxicity of our food chain. They have also been shown to have harmful reproductive and developmental impacts directly on humans! When shopping for personal care products, avoid anything on the label that says, fragrance, musk ketone, musk xylene, galaxolide, or tonalide.
Ever heard of phosporous? Phosphorus commonly comes from our food scraps, but is also found in dish detergents and fertilizers. The single most important nutrient that determines the health of lake ecosystems is the balance of phosphorus in the water.
Historically, our great lakes have struggled with an overabundance of phosphorus that cause extensive algal blooms. These algae produce toxins that are harmful to wildlife and humans, bring unwanted odours, impair wildlife habitats and deplete the water of oxygen once the algae dies and decomposes. This is why it’s super important to compost our food or look for phosphate free cleaning products and detergents to help reduce our phosphorous output to lake Ontario.
#3: Using products that contribute to plastic particles that can’t be filtered
Microplastics are another challenge for our wastewater treatment plants and Lake Ontario. Common microplastic sources are found in larger plastic objects (food wraps, plastic bags, food containers/cups) that break apart, synthetic clothing fibers, and microbeads found in soaps and cosmetics.
The good news is that Canada and the US are planning to ban microbeads (yay!) in cosmetic products by next year due to their toxicity. We can spot these ingredients in soaps and cosmetics by searching for the word “polyethylene” in the ingredients list.
Microfibers on the other hand, account for 71% of the microplastic pollution in our great lakes and represent the largest contributor of microplastics to the water system. Microfibers come off synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon and fleece during each wash and enter the wastewater flow to Lake Ontario. Aquatic life in the lakes cannot distinguish these fibers from food, filling their stomachs over time and therefore starving themselves to death.
Why Should We Care?
Whether we see it or not, our urban lives are tied to the health of our lake ecosystems. The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s fresh water, yet most of us take this for granted!
Did you know that Lake Ontario conveniently holds all the water we drink and use, and is unfortunately the most polluted of all the great lakes because every other lake flows into it?!
A report by WWF found that the Lake Ontario watersheds are currently under very high overall threats from pollution. Water pollution, like untreated wastewater, toxic chemicals, excessive phosphate and microplastics, suffocate and kill fish species like the walleye, salmon, and trout species that live in Lake Ontario. The toxins built up in these species are passed onto us at the end of the food chain.
And what about those microplastics? As our drinking water treatment plants struggle to filter out microplastics, more research is being conducted to better understand the effects of microplastics on humans.
Clean water is an essential resource for humans, aquatic plants and wildlife—protecting our water systems and biodiversity is in our own best interest, so next time, think before you flush.
About the Author: Lily Li is the founder of seafishtales, which inspires marine life stewards in the city. We make ocean conservation relevant to your urban lifestyle by catalyzing ocean-conscious conversations through experiences. Follow us @seafishtales on Instagram & Facebook to learn more. #oceanconscious seafishtales.com