Chemical Waste & Their Impact on the Environment
Chemical waste: according to the Environmental Agency in the UK, there were over 400,000 discharges of raw sewage into waterways in England alone in 2020.
Whatever you think about sewage in seawater, the release of huge amounts of nutrients in such a short time can have a significant impact on the surrounding ecosystem, producing ‘blooms’ of algae that block out the light and prevent the water from being oxygenated properly.
This has an impact on insects such as stoneflies and mayflies and, further up the food chain, the fish that feed on them, not to mention plants that live below the surface of the water.
This is just one example of how chemical waste, produced by humankind, have a profound impact on the natural world.
How Toxic Chemical Waste Gets into the Environment
Many different types of businesses produce toxic waste that contaminates the air, land and sea. Even small cleaning companies are guilty of impacting the environment if dangerous chemicals are poured down the sink.
Chemicals and waste get into the local environment in a variety of ways:
- In industry and construction, runoff from sites easily finds its way into water tables.
- Solid chemicals or waste cause contamination if left out in the open and subjected to elements such as rain.
- Pollutants that get washed onto the soil often seep into the groundwater below. That then finds its way into our rivers and oceans.
More than one business or industry has been fined in the past for illegal dumping which is likely to have had a huge impact on the local environment. Spills of chemicals, particularly oil, can be catastrophic to a wide range of wildlife.
When the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, it released the equivalent of 4 million barrels of oil that killed thousands of marine mammals and contaminated habitats.
There are regular instances where toxic waste is released into the environment and companies are fined nominal amounts for their transgression. Industrial Chemicals received a paltry fine of just £10,000 when a process malfunction led to the release of a toxic cloud in the Tyneside area.
Some countries have little or no regulation when it comes to combating chemical waste. In India, the reliance on coal fire plants means that the country is one of the biggest emitters of sulphur dioxide in the world and a staggering 90 per 100,000 people die in the country each year because of pollution such as this.
It’s Not Just Local Wildlife and Fauna
A study by the Guardian newspaper on water quality in the USA found that in many places it was contaminated by significant levels of pollutants. While many governments have standards for how companies behave and what can be discharged, it still doesn’t seem to be enough and enforcement often seems to be an issue.
A class of chemicals called PFAS are particularly troublesome. Known as ‘forever’ chemicals, they can stay in the ground for decades and find their way into water systems – some are highly toxic even at very low levels and can cause health issues such as kidney disease and birth defects.
The Plastic Waste: An Environmental Catastrophe
One of the biggest waste challenges facing mankind comes from plastics. You might be surprised to learn that only 10% of all the plastics that have ever been made have ever been recycled.
We’ve depended on plastics since the middle of the 20th century and have been happily producing everything from drinking bottles to food packaging for more than 70 years. The problem is that most plastic gets thrown away and it takes hundreds of years to degrade. Meanwhile, a lot of it has found its way into our rivers and streams and then into the oceans where it is an immediate threat to wildlife.
Countries like the USA produce about 42 billion kg of plastic waste each year. Even a small country like the UK is creating 6.4 kg annually.
While many countries have recycling centres and collect plastic waste, this is a woefully inadequate response to the problem that now faces us. Weaning ourselves off plastic for good and replacing it with something more sustainable has proved challenging. Companies are now starting to create compostable and biodegradable packaging and it’s worth looking out for when you’re at the shops. By they are still too few and too far between.
What Can You Do?
Big corporations may create a lot of the chemical and other waste that damages our environment but so do normal human beings going about their daily lives. If you want to reduce your impact and behave more sustainably, there are lots of things you can do.
- Dispose of Chemicals Safely: Whether it’s at home or work, always check any chemicals you may have before you dispose of them, particularly if you are intending to flush them down the sink. Many local recycling plants now take in chemicals and other waste to dispose of safely.
- Lobby the Government: Whether it’s your local member of parliament or someone further up the political chain, it’s important to have a voice and let people know that you want a more sustainable future. Vote for the politicians that have the better eco-friendly policies if you can.
- Reduce Your Plastic: We can all reduce the amount of plastic we consume, whether that’s having a bag for life or refusing to buy anything with single-use plastic attached to it. If we change our behaviours then that will bring about action by companies – in other words, if we refuse to buy their products, they’ll make the changes.
- Shop Sustainably: It can be difficult to shop sustainably, especially if you are on a tight budget, but every little that you can do helps. Look for companies that don’t produce waste products and perhaps start looking at things like natural cleaning solutions rather than ones that contain lots of chemicals.
We can all do our bit to make the world a more sustainable and environmentally friendly place. Yes, large corporations and governments have to get their side right too and we should lobby them as much as possible to change. But the onus is really on all of us to make those changes in our own lives also.
If we can do that, we can make a difference.