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4 Ways the Private Sector Can Help Take on Water Pollution


By Scott Huntington

Water pollution is one of the most significant threats to the environment and human health, as well as the economic well-being of many countries around the world. Everyone needs water to live, yet much of the limited freshwater we have access to is polluted. Oceans, which provide critical environmental services, are also contaminated with various types of pollution.

Although humans are causing this pollution, we are also using various approaches to reduce it. Here are some of the most significant actions currently being taken to reverse and prevent water pollution, and how the private sector is helping out.

Cleanup Initiatives

From volunteers picking up trash by hand along shorelines to engineers inventing high-tech machines that patrol the ocean for litter, people are working to remove some of the pollutants that already exist in our waterways.

The first such machine is expected to deploy soon to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an aggregation of approximately 1.8 trillion bits of plastic. Within five years, it’s believed, the machine will be able to clean up half of the patch. The device comes from Ocean Cleanup, a technology company created by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat when he was just 18 years old.

Consumer product companies (CPG) have stepped up as well by using recovered ocean plastic to make clothing and shoes, packaging, carpets and more.

Improving Trash Management

We produce vast amounts of plastics every year, and much of it ends up littering the natural environment. It's been estimated that 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Other types of trash pollute our waters, too, making better management of this waste a critical step to take to clean up our water.

Part of the solution is reducing the amount of single-use plastic items we use. More companies, such as Starbucks, have started to take a stab at this by banning plastic straws.

Individuals are helping out by opting for reusable containers and recycling more. Looking for products made from and packaged with recycling materials, then reusing or recycling those items instead of throwing them away, can help reduce the amount of plastic entering the oceans.

Reducing Nutrient Runoff

Abnormally high levels of nutrients in waterways, caused by runoff from fertilizers, are another significant water pollution problem. These nutrients are a natural part of water ecosystems, but in overly high concentrations, they cause excessive algae growth. These algae blooms reduce the amount of oxygen in the water, killing fish.

This nutrient runoff comes from farms, as well as fertilizer used for lawns and gardens, which wash into waterways with rain.

We are seeing more companies work with farmers to to prevent runoff by encouraging them to reduce the amount of fertilizer they use, avoiding using it before it rains and capturing runoff in retention ponds.

Cleaning up Wastewater

Industrial facilities, sewage plants and mining operations discharge wastewater into rivers and lakes, causing a significant portion of the world’s water pollution.

In developed countries, this wastewater discharge is regulated, reducing its environmental impact. In many places around the world, though, companies do not treat wastewater before releasing it into waterways. It's estimated that 80 percent of wastewater gets discharged without any treatment.

In the United States, the Clean Water Act regulates wastewater discharge. Rules such as these, alongside support from the private sector, can greatly improve a country's water quality. Countries that have adequate wastewater treatment need to work with those that don't to help them get them the technologies they need to improve wastewater treatment there.

Ongoing Research

Along with universities and government agencies, more companies are working to further our understanding of the current state of water pollution, its impact, and how we can prevent and mitigate it.

Carl Allen, for example, recently sold his family’s company, which makes institutional garbage bags, and is now dedicating his time to studying plastic pollution and fish migration. With his new venture, Allen Exploration, he plans to take water samples at various depths to measure the concentration of micropollutants.

There are also innovators like Boyan Slat, who are coming up with new ways to remove pollution from the ocean or minimize the amount of trash we produce in the first place.

Water pollution is a massive problem, but people are tenacious, so you can expect people to continue working to solve it. It's critical that they do, since the condition of our waters is crucial to the health of every living thing on Earth.

Image credit: Aditya Madhav/Wiki Commons

Scott Huntington is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont.

Read more stories by Scott Huntington