Newsletter: Why I worry about the environment after I flush

Have you ever wondered what happens after you flush? If not, I’m not surprised — out of sight, out of mind, right?

It’s certainly something I didn’t think about much until recently. But when I started researching for my investigation into water pollution, I found out Canadians dump billions of litres of raw sewage into rivers, lakes and oceans every year. Some places have outdated treatment systems, while others don’t have any at all. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, among other locations, dump untreated sewage when heavy storms cause combined sewer systems to overflow.

As a part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Canada is supposed to halve the proportion of untreated wastewater dumped into waterways — but we’re not on track, which comes at a high cost to Canadians. On Vancouver Island, members of the Ucluelet First Nation told me that they can’t eat clams (a traditional food) from the beach in front of their community because the water’s been contaminated with bacteria from human waste. And in Toronto, raw sewage dumps into Lake Ontario affect how safe it is to swim.

Waste in the Toronto Harbourfront.

In 2012, Environment Canada released wastewater-system regulations that set deadlines for upgrading Canada’s systems in 2020, 2030 and 2040. But they’re not enough, according to Krystyn Tully, vice-president of Swim Drink Fish Canada. The regulations focus on secondary treatment, which doesn’t deal with emerging concerns about chemicals and materials — including pharmaceuticals from urine and microplastics — that go down the drain. “By the time they’re done … secondary treatment is going to be considered so out-of-date and antiquated,” Krystyn explained.

With cutbacks at newspapers across Canada, she also worries about the decrease in local environmental reporting, and how that’s affecting literacy about water issues. For my part, I’m left wondering: How much longer can we get away with this flush-and-forget approach to waste?

Regular readers of my newsletter will know that I’m currently deep into a project on plastic pollution in the ocean, the first part of my broader ambitions to tackle a range of water pollution issues. As I figure out how to approach this topic, I’d like your thoughts: What questions and concerns do you have about water pollution? I’m also gathering water pollution stories from across Canada, so I’d love to hear from you. Please send me an email, tweet or Facebook message, and share your responses on social media, using the hashtag #SustainableDiscourse. Finally, if you know someone who’s interested in sustainability, please forward my newsletter and ask them to subscribe.




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