What shouldn't you flush down the toilet and why? What should you do with it instead? Flushing the wrong things causes blockages, pollution and littering.
The Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean reported in March 2015 that the number of wet wipes on UK beaches had more than doubled between 2013 and 2014. This rise in pollution of our oceans and beaches is mainly due to the fact that people want convenience and so many people treat their toilet like a bin. In this post I take a look at some of the things that people flush down the toilet, why you shouldn't and what you should do with it instead.
Can you flush tampons and applicators?
Tampons don't break down. Eventually a fatty ball of them will accumulate blocking drains which then have to be unblocked by hand. Tampons and applicators should be wrapped up and put in the bin. You can wrap the used tampon in a sheet of toilet paper and the used applicator can go back in the original wrapper. Since Tampax started making plastic applicators for some ridiculous reason, I've seen many of them washed up on beaches. Be even greener by not buying tampons with plastic applicators, if possible.
Can you flush wet wipes down the toilet?
Well, I think you've probably already gathered from the introduction to this article that wet wipes (whether skincare wipes, baby wipes or cleaning wipes) should never be flushed down the toilet. Wet wipes are one of the biggest causes of blockages in sewers and at wastewater treatment works. Even wipes described as “flushable” cause blockages and biodegradable ones often don’t spend long enough in the sewer to start to decompose.
Many wet wipes contain plastic fibres which means they don't disintegrate like toilet paper so they end up littering our environment for a long time. Plastic items, such as carrier bags and potentially wet wipes, are mistaken by marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins and turtles. When animals eat plastic it just remains in their stomach and they can end up dying of starvation as their stomachs fill up with indigestible plastic material. The most sustainable option is to stop using wet wipes completely and I've written a post about some alternatives to wet wipes.
Can you flush cotton buds or cotton wool down the toilet?
No, these will just cause blockages too. Years ago, I remember being amazed by the amount of plastic lollipop sticks I was seeing on the beach. I eventually found out that these were actually the sticks from cotton buds or q tips which had been flushed down the toilet. So, if you want to be able to enjoy a beach free from cotton buds, make sure you put them in the bin.
Can you flush condoms down the toilet?
Condoms should never be flushed down the toilet. They should be wrapped up and put in the bin. They don't biodegrade in water and will end up clogging the pipes causing inconvenience and costing you money. One sewage worker told The Guardian: “I've been down the sewers in central London and seen what appear to be fish on the surface. They're actually condoms filled with air, bobbing around. It is pretty grim.”
Can you flush sanitary or incontinence pads down the toilet?
Have you ever thought about why restaurants, pubs, workplaces and virtually every public toilet has a sign telling you not to flush feminine hygiene products down the toilet and instead provide a special bin for safe disposal? It's because they don't want you blocking their toilets and costing them money when they have to call in the drain people to sort out the mess.
Sanitary towels and incontinence pads are designed to absorb moisture and expand and this expansion makes them too big to safely pass through pipes and sewers. So once again just wrap them up and put in the bin and save yourself the cost and inconvenience.
Can you flush hair down the toilet?
Hair is one of the worst things for clogging showers, sinks, drains and toilet plumbing. Like dental floss, it forms giant balls which trap odours and create massive blockages in pipes, plumbing and sewers. When brushing and combing your hair or cleaning your brushes, just throw your hair into the bin or compost it. I always use a sink strainer which I empty into the bin after every shower or bath as it's one of the best natural ways to clean drains and to keep drains unclogged.
Can you flush cigarettes down the toilet?
No, don't do it. Cigarettes contain toxic chemicals that end up in the water supply and synthetic material which won't break down. Also, it's an incredible waste of water to flush away a single cigarette butt so use an ashtray.
Can you flush nappies or diapers?
Disposable nappies and liners are far too big to be flushed down the toilet. They rarely make it round the U-bend and can cause very bad blockages. Flush the baby's waste down the toilet, wrap the nappy and put it in the bin. You can also buy eco-friendly disposable nappy bags such as Naty Nature Babycare Disposable Nappy Bags which cost £1.85 for 50 bags.
Can you flush cat or kitty litter?
Cat litter is made from clay and sand and should never be put down the toilet. Cat waste also contains toxins and parasites that you don't want to put into our water system.
Can you flush toilet paper?
Yes, generally in the UK it's fine to flush toilet paper down the toilet but try not to use loads as that could get blocked too. If you're using a lot in one sitting then you might want to flush mid-way through to be on the safe side. If you like to save water by not flushing every time you use the toilet, it's a good idea to flush away loo paper in the toilet bowl before having a poo to avoid blocking the pipes. If I use toilet paper for other things, such as when I have a cold, I put that in the rubbish bin.
Why can't you flush some things down the toilet?
The wastewater drain running from your house is just 10cm wide. Your toilet and the sewerage system is designed to deal with human waste matter and toilet paper. Other waste is too big and can cause blockages in your drain costing you time and money to fix. If your waste makes it out of your drainage system, it can cause blockages in the sewerage system which can lead to increases in the cost of water and sewerage bills. So it makes sense for everyone to only use the toilet for what it's intended for.
Screens used to filter out the waste can be damaged by blockages. In times of heavy rainfall the flow in the sewers increases hundreds of times and diluted wastewater can sometimes be allowed to flow into rivers or the sea to prevent flooding. This means anything you flush down the toilet or pour down the sink can cause a health hazard, harm wildlife, pollute the environment and cause littering.
The three Ps
So basically, we need to start treating our toilets as toilets again, and remember toilets aren't bins. The only things that should ever be flushed down the toilet are the three Ps – pee, poo and paper. For everything else – Bag it and Bin it.
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