31st May – Concern over water quality

It’s been a busy time for protests. In late May a friend and I took part in a Surfers Against Sewage protest against water pollution, standing on the pontoon off the Tinside in Plymouth, waving a banner with a simple message; clean oceans.

Clean water is enormously important, both from our taps and in the oceans. The main purpose of the protest was to highlight sewage leaks into river courses due to inadequate infrastructure by water companies, and inadequate legislation by governments to make investment more attractive. It stands to reason that if a fine, when it comes, is less expensive than the investment needed, then companies may well prefer to take the risk and not spend the money necessary to upgrade systems.

In 2022 there were 37,000 monitored sewage spills in the south west. This was down from 42,500 in 2021, primarily due to the drought. Note that these are just the reported spills – the true number is likely to be much higher. This week eleven shellfish production zones in Cornwall have had to close due to very high levels of E coli, which is being blamed on sewage . Prof Peter Hammond, a mathematician analysing data on sewage discharges has previously given evidence to MPs to reveal illegal discharges of raw sewage by water companies is ten times higher than suggested by official data.

Climate change, with increased risk of flash flooding, makes the problem worse. The reason it is so bad is because road-drainage shares space with sewage, so if there is a lot of surface water this enters the system and causes it to overflow. The best way of fixing this would be to separate the two. Although this would be expensive and time consuming it is something that should be prioritised.

Another problem is increased house building. With new houses come more sewage, and less land to absorb rain water. We have the knowledge to reduce the problem by installing compost toilets or fitting all new builds with grey water systems that reuse water from washing machines etc and use them for toilets, thus reducing the overall quantity that is flushed away.

What is also needed is meaningful investment by water providers. Too much consideration is given to shareholders, rather than providing a service. However until the water companies get their act together we can all help mitigate the problem by reducing the quantity of water we pour down our drains. We can only flush when we really need to. We can install a water hippo in old cisterns (new dual flush cisterns should be reasonably efficient.) We can harvest excess run-off from roofs in water buts. We can install an eco shower head to increase water efficiency. These measures would also save water, so a win-win all round.

Another pollutant that makes its way into the rivers and seas is plastic. I read a disconcerting article recently about tests at a plastic recycling plant. An international team of scientists sampled wastewater from a recycling plant in the UK and found that micro plastics released in the water amounted to 13% of the plastic processed, releasing up to 75 billion plastic particles in each cubic metre of waste water. 

It must be stressed that this recycling plant was a state-of-the-art plant, with quality filtration measures. After receiving the report the plant increased further filters, but their was still 6% micro plastics seepage.

Recyling is not straightforward. Unfortunately when we do our recycling we simply pass the problem down the line. It’s easy to think we do our bit for the environment because we recycle, but the truth is complex and problematic. What we actually need to do is stop using plastics, full stop. 

This is not easy to do; without legislation shops are going to continue offering over-packaged goods. Remember plastics are a new thing; years ago we survived without them. I’ve found my plastic waste has reduced hugely since giving up supermarkets, who are a prime culprit for much single-use plastic. Having a veggie box and shopping in local loose-food stores such as No Wrap No Crap in Liskeard, Deli-Bazaar in Saltash and Weigh To Go in Millbrook is a good place to start. Remember, if we don’t buy it, they won’t make it. And similarly support the good things that you want to see more of, because the use-it-or-lose-it phrase is very true.

Finally on a tangent, I’m worried about the lack of insects this summer; they are noticeably down. This may be due to last year’s drought, or an unseasonably cold spring. If the later is the case when they finally appear it will be really important for them to have vegetation to feed from and lay eggs on. So do please keep your un-mown areas long for a while yet and let nettles grow if you can, to allow time for nature to recover from what is proving to be challenging times.

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