Better beach clean-ups to tackle rising storm of public outrage

Incidences of storm overflow discharges from combined rainwater and sewage pipes have risen to levels probably never foreseen by the Victorian engineers that installed them across Britain. The inheritance of 15,000 of these outlets by modern water companies is imposing increasingly severe operational and reputational impacts, with climate change and urban development increasing both surface run-off, and the requirement for water firms to discharge raw sewage into waterways and the sea, to avoid overwhelming the sewage system.

It is clear that water companies and wider society recognise that action needs to be taken in the long-term to tackle this challenge to our natural environment and national reputation. The UK has Europe’s fourth longest coastline, and whilst it is rarely as balmy as the Greek islands, it is an increasingly valuable tourist and local leisure destination. To date, the focus has been on reducing the number of instances of sewage discharges; which is expensive and requires a long-term engineering effort. However, it could be argued that not enough  focus has been placed on sewage clean-up efforts, which can provide immediate visual and health benefits to local populations affected by such outflow events.

Clean-ups are an often underappreciated element of the solution, which can help to tackle both the risk of disease spread from cross contamination as well as much of the visible, and odorous, signs of a sewage discharge. While such discharges often contain 95 per cent rainwater, with a large amount of plastic waste in the sewer system – as well as sanitary products from household sewage – these can also be washed out to lie for long periods of time on riverbanks and beaches. Such litter presents long-term health and environmental risks, with wet wipes washed onto beaches harbouring bacteria for long periods and in high concentrations.

Changes to UK legislation for sewage discharges have been promised by the Government, with fines set to rise from the maximum £250,000 levied today, up to £250 million. This would represent a quantum shift in the enforcement and punishment of such acts as, despite widespread public condemnation through the late summer and autumn storms that hit the UK this year, water companies have collectively been fined only £138 million since 2015.

While many criticise water companies for failing to replace combined sewage pipes, the cost of doing so is prohibitive – estimated at between £350bn and £600bn – which would equate to a rise in household water bills for each customer of between £569 and £999 per year. In the meantime, water firms and local authorities continue to invest in mitigating the impact of incidents by tackling sewer blockages, and river and beach clean-ups as quickly as possible.

At present, the cost and effectiveness of beach cleaning is poorly studied in light of the attention paid to combined sewage discharge events. Government figures provide a loose estimate that municipal authorities spend around £15.8 million annually removing plastic waste from British beaches. This may seem a small amount, given that it is only just shy of the average annual fine that the Environment Agency has handed out to water companies for sewage discharge events. It also fails to include the investment made by progressive water companies to both tackle the root causes of overflows by removing the plastic waste clogging sewer pipes, as well as the river and beach clean-ups they appoint specialist cleaners to undertake when spills do occur.

Rentokil Specialist Hygiene’s sewage clean-up service is already in use with a number of water companies and is undertaken by professionals that understand the risks and dangers associated with sewage spills, and ensures litter is safely removed in a quick and cost effective manner that is considerate to the environment. While the efforts of voluntary beach clean-ups by organisations such as Surfers against Sewage and the National Trust are to be praised, the risks associated with litter contaminated with raw sewage are high, ranging from gastroenteritis to hepatitis, and should only be undertaken by professionals.

For water companies facing a rising tide of public criticism and regulatory fines, the swift commissioning and publicising of professional beach cleaning services is hugely important. It is something that has long been common practice within the oil and gas industry, and it is high time that the UK’s water industry caught up and followed early leaders in this sector to deliver British beaches to make us all proud.

Water firms looking to tackle the scourge of sewage contaminated litter should visit Rentokil Specialist Hygiene to speak to our experts.