Septic Burden on Natural Ecosystems in Cape Cod

The Impact of Septic Systems on Coastal Environments: A Focus on Cape Cod

Septic systems, which manage wastewater in areas without centralized sewer systems, play a vital role in human sanitation. Because these systems were designed primarily to reduce health risks to humans without much by way of nutrient removal, they typically divert wastewater away from drinking water sources and release effluent into a leach field for natural filtration. Despite their importance for individual properties, septic systems pose environmental challenges, especially in sensitive watersheds like Cape Cod.

Septic systems treat and dispose of household wastewater onsite, removing harmful pathogens and pollutants through settling and diversion. The septic tank separates solids, and the liquid effluent undergoes further treatment in the leach field through microbial action and soil filtration.

In areas where centralized sewer systems are impractical, septic systems offer a decentralized solution. These onsite systems are quite common in regions like Cape Cod, with high-density development making extensive sewer infrastructure challenging in rural and suburban settings.

Environmental Impact in Sensitive Watersheds:

While effective in diverting pathogens away from homes and drinking water sources, septic system design can lead to high nutrient loading in sensitive watersheds. Cape Cod, with a high density of septic systems, faces excess nitrogen loading in coastal waters, causing ecological imbalances as nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus leach into groundwater and reach coastal areas. Once in fresh and coastal waterways, these nutrients over-fertilize harmful algal blooms, which threaten wildlife and water quality. This cascade effect is known as “eutrophication.”

Cape Cod’s dense concentration of septic systems presents a unique challenge, contributing to water quality issues and harmful algal blooms. The excess nitrogen harms marine life, degrading ponds and estuaries and posing a threat to coastal ecosystems.

Apart from nitrogen, septic systems contribute to excess phosphorus runoff, worsening eutrophication. Cape Cod’s ponds suffer ecological degradation, becoming vulnerable to becoming “dead zones” due to algal blooms and oxygen depletion.

Enter Urine Diversion:

A unique pilot on the Cape addresses environmental concerns related to nitrogen pollution through a community-scale urine diversion pilot project, inspired in part by the work of our friends at the Rich Earth Institute. Spearheaded by Earle Barnhart and Hilda Maingay of the Green Center, members of the Falmouth Pond Coalition, and MASSTC (The Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Technology Center), this initiative aims to assess the benefits of urine diversion as a sustainable solution to reduce nutrient pollution in local waters. Since urine contains a significant portion of the nutrients in our wastewater, the theory goes that by removing it from septic systems through urine-diverting fixtures in the home, we can significantly reduce the nutrient loading in from leach fields. 

Wasted* is helping to amplify local momentum, providing collection and transport of this unique “resource stream” from participants of the pilot to MASSTC, where it will be treated and upcycled for its nutrients. 

The collaboration with MASSTC reflects a shared commitment to finding practical and effective solutions for reducing environmental impact and enhancing local ecosystems.


By fostering local momentum and helping to build a urine-diverting ecosystem in the Cape, Wasted* is doing our part to further sustainable wastewater management and protect sensitive watersheds. The collaborative project emphasizes the importance of such initiatives in addressing environmental challenges, marking a significant step towards a more sustainable and circular future.


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