7 surprising ways you may be contributing to water pollution

Foam soap in a lake

While we’d like to believe that Canada’s lakes and rivers are crystal clear, water pollution is a serious problem in even the most remote reaches of cottage country.

Here are seven ways that you could be polluting your community’s water without realizing it.


While cigarettes are a major known cause of air pollution, there’s another unwanted side effect of smoking: millions of cigarette butts are littering our ocean and lake floors. It’s estimated that five trillion (yes, you read that right) cigarette butts are tossed on the ground every year, many of which find their way via sewer drains to the water. Loaded with chemicals, they’re a type of toxic waste that doesn’t biodegrade, making them one of the top pollutants of the Great Lakes. It’s just one more reason that you should make sure your butt finds its way into the bin.

Washing your face

If your facewash contains microbeads, you’re flushing thousands of tiny plastic particles down the drain and into our waterways every time you lather up. The beads are too small to be filtered by wastewater treatment plants, which is how they find their way into lakes, oceans, and rivers. Once there, the non-biodegradable plastic particles are impossible to remove and end up being consumed by marine life, including fish and oysters. Instead, choose soap with a biodegradable exfoliate, such as walnut shells or apricot seeds.

Not maintaining your septic system

While there’s a certain appeal to having a “rustic” cottage, there’s absolutely nothing appealing about having a rustic sewage system. Leaky, rusting, and older septic tanks and lines are one of the greatest sources of water pollution in cottage country. According to a report from the Township of Muskoka Lakes, lakes are easily contaminated when untreated sewage seeps from faulty tanks to bedrock and groundwater flows. Checking your septic system on a regular basis is essential—especially if you have an older cottage.

Fertilizing your lawn

Ground and surface water pollution caused by agricultural pesticides and fertilizers is one of the largest sources of water pollution in North America. While it’s on a much smaller scale, the fertilizers that you use on your home lawn and garden can have similar effects. When fertilizer enters streams as runoff, it finds its way directly into our lakes, causing algal blooms, which deplete oxygen for fish and other species. Instead of store-bought chemicals, see if there is a natural or organic method that will lead to a greener lawn, such as ditching your mower bag.

Flushing away expired medication

Sewage treatment plants are not designed to filter pharmaceuticals, and flushing old drugs down the toilet is having very real effects on fish and wildlife. Fish populations in Canadian lakes have significantly decreased due to levels of estrogen, which can be found in birth control pills, while flushed antibiotics may lead to resistant strains of bacteria in our waterways. Keep tablets out of our waterways and landfills by taking expired drugs back to your local pharmacy for safe disposal. 

Wearing sunscreen

Just like any other personal care products, the sunscreen you wear can have an adverse affect on water quality. An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers’ bodies every year, containing zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which never biodegrade. Meanwhile, benzohenone-2 protects wearers against the effects of UV light, but it can also kill juvenile corals. Luckily, eco-friendly sunscreens do exist.

De-icing your driveway with salt

Think about what road salt does to your car—now imagine what it must do in our lakes. Considered a toxin, the salt you sprinkle on your sidewalk will eventually make its way into sewer drains or nearby waterways, increasing chloride levels and creating dangerous conditions for aquatic life, including killing amphibians and plants. So before you pour on a heavy dose of salt, try your luck with an ice chipper and a bit of good old-fashioned elbow grease.