Pollution from Waste Water

All of us generate waste water every day, from toilets, sinks, bathrooms, kitchen appliances and vehicle washing. Industry also produces a lot of wastewater. In most of the UK, our waste water gets combined with rain water from our homes, roofs and roads and it is all sent together to be treated at a sewage treatment works before the final treated effluent is discharged back to the environment.


Along the way to the treatment works, there are storm overflows on the sewer network which act as emergency release valves during times of heavy rainfall, discharging sewage mixed with rainfall to rivers, in order to stop the network backing up and flooding people’s homes. This approach has served us well in the past however this is no longer acceptable and the new Environment Act means that water companies have stringent targets to significantly reduce the number of times storm overflows operate. You can view a map of where storm overflows have discharged to rivers or the sea here.


You should also assume that anything you flush might end up in the river, so put a waste bin in your bathroom and only flush the three P’s down the toilet (pee, poo and paper) and be careful not to rinse fats, oils and grease down the sink as these can all congeal causing “fatbergs” which block the sewer.


This wastewater needs to be treated before it can be returned to the environment, otherwise it can harm animals and plants, and make water unfit for drinking. It is easier and more cost-effective to stop pollutants reaching the water course than to try and remove them once they are in our rivers, but even well-treated sewage may be rich in nutrients which can cause algae to grow excessively under certain circumstances. When this happens it can  starve other species of essential oxygen and stop plants and animals from thriving. Dissolved metals and some chemicals not normally removed by treatment processes can be toxic to animals and plants.


Sewage treatment works are under increasing pressure from population growth and increased frequency of floods and droughts. 18% of the reasons for poor/bad ecological status in the Swale, Ure, Nidd and Upper Ouse, and 13% in the Wharfe and Lower Ouse are due to the effect of sewage discharged from wastewater treatment works and discharges from industry. 

Stop and Think… Not Down the Sink!

The water from our houses and gardens could end up in the river. We can all do our bit to help protect the river by following these simple steps:


Only flush the three Ps (pee, poo and paper) down your toilet and don’t rinse fats, oils or grease down the kitchen sink. Put a bin in your bathroom for unflushable items like cotton buds. Never flush any wet wipes, even biodegradable ones as they will not degrade in the hour it takes to reach the sewage treatment works and will still cause fatbergs and blockages. Use kitchen roll or a fat scraper to wipe the fat, grease and oil from pans before washing them up.


Your bath, sink, toilet, dishwasher and washing machine should be connected to the foul water drain, not a surface water drain which would take this dirty water straight to the river. It is your responsibility to correct any misconnections. Find out more here.


Consider using ecological laundry detergent and washing up liquids. These have low phosphate content reducing the amount of damaging nutrients reaching the river.


Use fertilisers and pesticides carefully as they are very damaging to aquatic life, and dispose of garden waste responsibly (eg compost it or take to a household recycling centre).

Reporting Sewage Pollution

By reporting pollution, you can play a vital role in cleaning up our rivers.


Identifying Pollution

Signs of pollution can be:

  • Dead or dying fish
  • Unpleasant smell
  • Black or grey water, possibly originating from pipes 
  • Sewage litter such as sanitary items, wet wipes, tissue paper
  • Sewage fungus

Reporting Pollution

  • Make a note of the date, time, and location (grid reference, what3words or postcode).
  • If possible take photos and videos to use as evidence.
  • Ring the Environment Agency on their 24 hour hotline: 0800 80 70 60


Further Action

You can write to your MP and request that they follow up on these incidents. The website theyworkforyou.com can help you find the contact details for your local MP.