There are a number of things, some well-known and others not so obvious, that one should never flush down a toilet. There are three fundamental reasons why items make this list: it’s bad for your home’s plumbing and/or septic system, it has the potential to create negative environmental impacts, or it creates challenges for a municipal wastewater collection and treatment system.
The municipal sewer system takes care of things largely out of sight; however, beneath the streets and sidewalks are miles of pipe that not only require gravity but also pump stations to move wastewater to a treatment facility. These pump stations are periodically clogged by non-dispersible waste that’s flushed down the toilet. Once the waste arrives at a treatment facility, it is screened at the headworks to remove larger solid debris, but again, these mechanisms require significant maintenance to keep from becoming clogged with material that doesn’t degrade in water.
One product, the “flushable wipe,” has been particularly troublesome to private and municipal sewer systems. Unlike toilet paper that quickly disperses in circulating water, the tightly woven fabric of the wipes makes it very difficult to breakdown. A number of trade organizations such as the Water Environment Federation, the American Public Works Association, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies have advocated for manufacturers and retailers of these products to help educate customers that the wipes should not be flushed.
The problem is significant. New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection spends millions of dollars annually to remove the wipes by hand from the sewer system. Other municipal systems are installing expensive grinding systems to deal with the wipes before they clog pumps and check valves.
The Portland Water District in Maine installed screens at two pump stations, at a cost of $4.5 million, to catch materials that cause clogs. The screens collect about 120 pounds of material per week, and a significant percentage of that is wipes.
Recently, the Maine Water Environment Association (formerly Maine WasteWater Control Association) formed an unlikely partnership with the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) to create a campaign titled, “Save Your Pipes” (SaveYourPipes.org) to raise awareness about what can be flushed safely, and what can’t. (Woodard & Curran was one of a number of donors to contribute to this campaign). The public awareness campaign has been nominated for a 2014 US EPA Environmental Merit Award.
In addition to wipes, which includes baby and adult toilet wipes as well as household cleaning wipes, here is a list of fourteen more items to never flush:
- Paper towels: Just like non-dispersible wipes, these common household items are designed to not breakdown when wet.
- Disposable diapers: They’re not pleasant to handle or easy to dispose, but they’re far too solid to degrade in a sewer system.
- Cotton balls and swabs: These items gather in bends in pipe and frequently cause blockages.
- Cigarette butts: They’re smaller than the items above, but they’re not designed to degrade. Spend time at any beach, and you’ll find that cigarette butts are a litter item that simply doesn’t go away.
- Dental floss: If any of the items listed here are clogging your system, this pesky string will make matters worse.
- Fats, oil, and grease: Known in the wastewater industry as “FOG,” this liquid solidifies when it cools, and it creates significant problems for public wastewater systems as well as drains in your home. Recently, the Thames Water company discovered a 15-ton “fatberg” of caked grease and wipes clogging the sewer.
- Personal Care Products: Wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to breakdown pharmaceuticals. While they are diluted in the waste stream, studies have shown the presence of drugs such as steroid hormones and antidepressants in wastewater effluent. The EPA states that, “little is known about the extent of their prevalence in [the] environment or the potential risks they may pose.” The EPA refers to this as “Personal Care Products as Pollutants,” which also includes residues from cosmetics, agribusiness, and veterinary use.
- Chemicals: paint, automotive fluids, solvents, and poisons, are foolish to flush. Just as a wastewater treatment plant is not designed to screen out pharmaceuticals, these facilities are not designed to eliminate toxic chemicals. Check with your local municipal office to learn when and where you can dispose of these items, as well as pharmaceuticals.
- Non-flushable feminine hygiene products: It is widely known that these products are not safe to flush, yet a study conducted by INDA, Portland Water District, and several industry groups that collected non-flushable materials at a pumping station found tampons, pads, and feminine hygiene item wrappers accounted for 13% of its total.
- Pets: A representative of Thames Water told The Guardian newspaper not to flush goldfish, hamsters, gerbils, and the like, noting, “They don’t help, because they’re quite sturdy little things.”
- Condoms: These items are made of a material that is not intended to breakdown in liquid.
- Large food items: Surprisingly, apple cores and corncobs make many lists of non-flushable items found on municipal wastewater system websites.
- Cat litter: The absorbent properties (generally clay and sand) of this product wreak havoc on sewer systems by creating clogs.
- Medical Supplies: Bandages and hypodermic needles are often flushed, but quite simply, they don’t degrade. The needles also present a danger to employees who need to remove the items that clog the system.