Water is necessary for life, but surprisingly, our so-called “Blue Planet” doesn’t contain much freshwater. While 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh—the rest is saltwater. In addition, much of the freshwater is locked up in the polar ice caps or otherwise inaccessible, meaning that we humans have a relatively small amount to use.
Pollution is a serious problem because it degrades that tiny percentage of freshwater that’s available to us—and damages ocean ecosystems, which we depend on for food. We’ve all seen the evidence and effects of water pollution, whether it’s trash clogging an urban stream or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean. It may seem like unsurmountable challenge, but the truth is, there are lots of actions you can take right now to stop water pollution. Here are a handful of the most effective tips.
Don’t treat your sink or toilet like a trash can.
It may seem obvious, but sometimes a reminder is in order: don’t flush wrappers, cigarettes, tampon applicators, cleansing wipes, or any other trash down the toilet. Municipal sewage systems aren’t designed to handle these items, and they can end up strewn across beaches. They might also clog up your pipes, leading to costly repairs.
Similarly, don’t pour household cleaners, paint, or used oil down the drain. Many communities have household hazardous waste collection sites to safely dispose of these materials; call your garbage collector or city public works department for more information.
Pills and medicines are another category of items that shouldn’t go down the drain. Call your pharmacy to see if they have a collection program for unused prescription medicines. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also hosts National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, and you can search their website to find a controlled substance disposal location near you.
Never dispose of cooking oil, grease, or fat in the sink.
Your cooking oil may not contain hazardous chemicals, but it still shouldn’t go down the drain. Instead, pour used oil, grease, and fat into a secure container and throw it out with your trash.
Be a responsible car owner.
If you don’t maintain your car properly, it may leak oil, antifreeze, and coolants onto parking lots, roads, and your driveway. When it rains, stormwater sweeps these chemicals away, off the pavement, down storm drains, and into lakes and streams. In particular, oil leaks are a significant problem—every year, Americans spill more than 180 million gallons of used motor oil, which eventually winds up into our waterways. This amount is 16 times larger than the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
Regularly check your car for oil leaks, and place a drip pan beneath your car if you’re working on it. Collect used oil in a secure container with a tight lid. Often, you can drop off used motor oil at many auto supply stores and gas stations, or at a household hazardous waste collection site. See Earth 911’s recycling locator to figure out where you can recycle your motor oil.
Use less disposable plastic.
Every year, humans use between 250 million and 300 million tons of plastic, and unfortunately, much of that ends up in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the most visible reminders of this problem. Fortunately, there are lots of easy ways to stem the tide of plastic pollution. Start by bringing along reusable bags when you go shopping—keep a stash in your car or one in your purse so you’re never without one. You can also help by choosing foods with less plastic packaging, and by drinking tap water from a reusable bottle instead of buying bottled water in plastic containers.
Another simple and practically painless way to reduce your plastic consumption is to say no to plastic straws. Even more so than plastic bags, plastic straws truly are a one-time-use product—just in the US, we use an astonishing 500,000,000 of them every day. Stainless steel and reusable plastic straws are better options for at-home use. If you’re out at a restaurant, tell the waiter or waitress you don’t need a straw when you order your drink; if it’s a self-serve eatery, don’t take a straw and just sip straight from the cup.
Reassess your outdoor landscaping.
Hard surfaces like asphalt and pavement are basically one-way channels that allow rainwater to wash away trash and chemicals into creeks, rivers, and oceans. To stop this runoff, reduce the amount of your yard that’s paved. If you need a hard surface for paths, parking spots, and driveways, opt for stones, gravel, and other materials that allow stormwater to seep into the ground instead of rushing away. Additionally, more advanced products like porous asphalt and concrete appear similar to traditional materials but allow stormwater to filter through.
You can also position any downspouts from your roof into your garden, where plants can benefit from the runoff, instead of onto hard surfaces or toward storm drains. You can also construct a rain garden—a shallow depression filled with plants that absorb runoff from your home and yard.