Habitat Protection and Your Septic Tank

16 October 2023 by CSG

poorly managed septic tank contaminating surrounding area demonstrating the need for habitat protection.

If you own a septic tank or sewage treatment plant, then you are responsible for its safe and effective operation. Proper maintenance and consideration for habitat protection ensure the sustainability of your system and its surroundings.

Septic tank systems are regulated in the UK by the general binding rules, but their performance is rarely monitored. Sewage systems work by separating solid matter from the wastewater. If a system is neglected and not maintained or emptied regularly, these solids will build up. This shortens the time it takes for wastewater to pass through the system, raising the likelihood of untreated effluent being discharged into the environment.

Discharge from a neglected system can contain a wide variety of pollutants. These include pathogens, faecal bacteria, phosphorus, nitrogen, suspended solids, household detergents and chemicals.

For this reason, your sewage system plays a crucial role in protecting both your local & the wider environment. In this blog, we want to help property owners understand the effects of neglected septic systems. We will also suggest ways to reduce the problems caused by these systems.

The impacts of neglected treatment plants and septic tanks

1. Pollution & Nutrient runoff

As has been reported both in the news and by politicians, the UK has a serious problem with our waterways.

The Rivers Trust have found that only 14% of rivers are in good ecological health and none have good chemical or overall health. Adding more strain from off-mains systems can worsen an already bad situation.

State of UK rivers looking at overall health, ecological health and chemical health and why septic tank management is important for habitat protection.

Phosphate and nitrogen are two problem chemicals that can come from a sewage system’s discharge related to the environment. Phosphate enters our waterways from several different routes, but sewage is one of the main ones. The graph below shows the rate at which rivers and lakes pass on their phosphate chemical test in the UK.

Phosphate pass and fail rate in England for rivers and lakes and why septic tank management is important for habitat protection.

Phosphates are essential for plant growth. However, if an excess of phosphate (or nitrogen) enters a waterway, a process called eutrophication occurs. This process will eventually kill all plants and animals that live in the water.

It starts with algae feeding on the excess of nutrients in the water resulting in rapid growth. Soon a layer of algae will cover the surface water and prevent sunlight from shining into the water below.

The lack of sunlight causes aquatic plants to die, leading the oxygen levels of the water to drop. This will suffocate and kill the animals that live in the water. Finally, once the algae have used up all the nutrient reserves, they also die, leaving behind uninhabitable water and habitat loss. 

A recent example of this happening is on Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. Lough Neagh is the biggest freshwater lake in Ireland and provides 40% of its drinking water. The lake has been struggling with algal blooms for years, but it has been significantly worse in 2023.

The consensus is that this is caused by nutrient runoff from farms and septic tank runoff from poorly managed systems. The evidence for this is that:

  • In 2009, a report stated that 14% of phosphate pollution in the lake was coming from septic tanks.
  • An estimated 60 per cent of septic tank discharges in the Lough Neagh area are reaching surface waters.
  • 17 per cent of homes in Northern Ireland use septic tanks, compared with a UK average of just 4 per cent.
  • In 2023, a new report from Belfast Live said that 12% of the current phosphorus pollution in Ireland is coming from septic tanks.

Eutrophication has been predicted since the early 2000s and is now affecting the local economy. Fishermen have had their fishing season cut short due to the algae, which has meant the fish are undernourished. A water sports business that was open for 27 years on the Lough has also had to close. It has even started to make locals ill. Lough Neagh is the perfect example of why protecting nature is of utmost importance and the role your septic system plays in this.

2. Spread of Disease

Neglecting your system can also foster the spread of diseases which can endanger habitats. These diseases can also hurt humans and wildlife who share the same environment. These include infections and nasty parasites such as:

  • Bacterial infections: These come from excess sludge that can accumulate if a septic system isn’t regularly emptied. A well-managed system won’t get this build-up and can separate solids from liquids effectively. This prevents the build-up of harmful bacteria.
  • Viral infections: Systems can acquire an excessive volume of human waste due to neglect. These systems can become a breeding ground for viruses such as hepatitis A. If a system is well cared for, then routine maintenance minimises the risk of viral contamination.
  • Parasitic Infections: If wastewater isn’t properly treated, it can contain parasites such as helminths. These parasites cause a threat to both humans and wildlife if bodies of water are contaminated. This is only an issue if untreated wastewater is discharged which happens in mismanaged systems.
Parasitic infection in the gut.

Promoting wildlife-friendly practices for septic tank care

  • Proper maintenance

Proper maintenance schedules are the first step in mitigating the negative impacts of a sewage system. This schedule includes:

·        Regular inspections. These should be done either by the homeowner or if you have an agreement with the owner that you are responsible for the system (this will be specified in a tenancy agreement). If you’re a homeowner and the property shares a sewage system with other properties, you have joint responsibility.

·        Pumping out waste once per year or in line with manufacturer guidelines as per the UK government rules.

·        Repairing any faults or damage (regular maintenance)

·           Regular servicing of a sewage treatment plant. This makes sure your system is working efficiently and its effluent doesn’t contain pollutants.

When a system functions optimally, it significantly reduces the risk of pollution and habitat damage.

  • Environmentally friendly products

Using Natural cleaners can limit the amount of synthetic chemicals entering your system. Most septic systems don’t filter for chemicals or toxins so the cleaning products you use can enter the natural environment. Certain cleaners like bleach can also kill the beneficial bacteria in your system, which prevents the wastewater from being treated.

We recommend that the products you use are made with biodegradable ingredients that can break down naturally. This is opposed to the persistent synthetic chemicals that can cause a build-up. Some examples are Envii Drain Klear for blocked drains, Method Surface Cleaner for your kitchen and Eco Toilet Cleaning Gel for your toilet.

  • Supporting conservation organisations

These groups can help to better educate off-mains homeowners to improve their practices. Knowing the damage that overlooking a septic tank or sewage treatment system can cause is important. These organisations also work on wildlife and habitat conservation. They also restore areas affected by pollution (including septic system runoff). An example includes the creation of protected areas of natural habitat.

A great example would be the Hampshire & Isle of White Wildlife Trust. They have launched the Septic Smart project to help support the Watercress and Winterbournes Scheme. The project hopes to spread awareness of poor septic system management and the negative effects this can have on the UK chalk streams.

How can CSG help?

CSG offer emptyingservice, repair and installation for all sewage systems. We have over 85 years of experience helping off-mains drainage customers with their sewage systems and can replace or upgrade your current system.

Our operators and engineers will ensure your sewage system is running smoothly whilst adhering to the latest environmental standards. You can book an empty here or alternatively, give us a call on 0800 011 6600 and speak to one of our helpful team.