Toilets: why we must rethink this black hole of unmentionables
If it’s not pee, poo or paper, throw it in the bin, says environmental enthusiast Dawn Woodward
The toilet is one of the most used appliances in the home, yet it’s often taken for granted.
It not only bears witness to its fair share of unmentionables, but is also treated by many people as a black hole for disposing of just about anything – simply dump, flush and it’s gone.
Out of sight, out of mind, right? The risk of doing this is that the environment is further polluted, while sewage and wastewater treatment systems are damaged due to huge pipework blockages.
Today (Thursday 19 November) is World Toilet Day. It is a United Nations Observance that celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation. It is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.
What’s the problem?
If your toilet is working properly, it should flush your waste through the drain pipes, which then empty into the sewer system. Eventually, this sewage makes its way to your local wastewater treatment plant, where it is treated and the waste removed. Anything that is biodegradable, such as toilet paper, will break down naturally through this process, but other items that shouldn’t be flushed will have to be manually extracted and disposed of – that is, if they make it all the way to the treatment plant. Anywhere along the pipe system, foul debris can accumulate and eventually cause clogs and backups that can affect multiple properties.
Sometimes, if foreign objects are large enough, they never actually leave your home but, instead, stay lodged in the pipes underneath your house. Although this might not cause a blockage for weeks, months or even years, if enough debris piles up around it, serious plumbing issues can occur. At this point, you would have to contact a plumber to clear out the sewage and repair any damages that may have been caused to the pipework, which can be as costly an endeavour as it is embarrassing – especially if your plumber uncovers items that you would have preferred to stay flushed. Unfortunately, clogged wastewater systems have been an ongoing challenge in recent years.
According to Water UK – the trade body representing all of the main water and sewerage companies in Britain – there are approximately 300,000 sewer blockages every year, costing the country a staggering £100 million. Besides the impact on sewage infrastructures, many items that are being flushed down the toilet also contain plastic, which can eventually make their way into our rivers, lakes and oceans, contributing to worldwide plastic pollution. To help combat these problems, water companies are encouraging people to rethink their toilet habits. The three Ps – pee, poo and paper – are the only waste products to be flushed, but what are some of the most common non-flushable items that many people dispose of down the khazi?
Disposable wet wipes
Millions of people rely on the convenience and multi-purpose nature of wet wipes, but these small squares of moist fabric make up 93% of the material causing sewer blockages in the UK. The problem with wet wipes is that, contrary to what some people might think, they do not disintegrate in the same way as toilet paper. Instead, they clump together and combine with congealed masses of fats, oil and grease – otherwise known as ‘fatbergs’ – that can clog up our sewer systems. Even wet wipes, that claim to be flushable, biodegradable or compostable, are unlikely to degrade quickly enough once flushed to avoid wreaking havoc on drains and waterways. This is one reason why the UK government is considering measures to ban wet wipes entirely.
Feminine hygiene products
Half of women consider throwing sanitary products in the bin as opposed to the toilet a no-brainer, but the other half have no idea that this can be a waste nightmare. It is estimated that 1.5 to 2 billion sanitary products are flushed annually, with 700,000 panty liners ending up down the drain, along with 1.4 million menstrual pads. The most problematic products are tampons, with approximately 2.5 million of them being flushed every day., Like wet wipes, tampons often contain plastic to make them extremely absorbent but durable, which is why they don’t disintegrate like toilet paper. The burden that feminine hygiene products can place on the environment and wastewater treatment systems has prompted some people to consider using alternative solutions, including menstrual cups, period underwear, and reusable cotton pads or tampons.
Although these little pieces of string might seem innocent enough to toss into the toilet bowl, dental floss is typically made out of non-biodegradable substances like nylon, which do not break down over time. For those who are – quite rightly – daily interdental cleaners, frequently flushing pieces of dental floss can eventually amount to a big plumbing problem, as floss can combine with other waste items such as wet wipes to clog up drains and sewers. To discourage the disposal of dental floss in this way, dental professionals can recommend more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as CPS interdental brushes from Curaprox. These feature a reusable handle and replaceable brush head to promote the reduction, reuse and recycle of waste.
When in doubt, throw it out
If we are to effectively protect the environment and ensure the success of our sewage infrastructures, it is important that we are considerate of what we flush down the porcelain throne. Remember, if it’s not pee, poo or paper, throw it in the bin.
References available on request.
Author: Dawn Woodward