As consumers in the 21st century, many of us have become trained as “label readers”. We read nutrition labels, personal care product labels, clothing labels, and so on. For those of us that do read labels, you might be disappointed to know that you can’t always trust the labels. I could write a whole series of articles about the different ways companies mislead consumers with some of their claims, but today I am going to focus on one word that we probably don’t often look for on labels and that is “flushable”.
If I told you that products that claim they are “flushable” aren’t really flushable, would you believe me? Probably not, but that is what I’m going to tell you, and I’ll explain what I mean. There are a handful of products out there that claim they are “flushable” and that’s because they can physically be flushed down a standard toilet, but there’s more to the story. Let’s take personal wipes or baby wipes for example. We use them (just as we would toilet paper), we throw them in the toilet, and we flush them away. Great! It’s true! They are flushable! And it is great, unless your home plumbing has any limitations (i.e. root intrusion, grease, etc.) or you’re the wastewater system employee on the receiving end of those wipes.
In the wastewater world, products that are “flushable”, but do not break down like toilet paper are called “non-dispersibles” because they don’t disperse or dissolve quickly in water. The problem? Non-dispersibles can clog pipes and pumps. This can cause sewer overflows or equipment failure which can be quite costly to us as rate payers when utility employees have to spend a significant amount of time cleaning up sewer overflows, removing these items, and a significant amount of money to repair broken equipment that is not designed to handle these products. Remember, we collectively own the wastewater system, and we all share the cost to maintain it, so we should all do our part to keep wastewater collection systems and treatment plants running as smoothly as possible. The least we can do for the folks that handle our waste is give them less crap, right? You can save yourself from plumbing costs too because if clogs occur on your end of the pipe, correction costs would be on you to hire a plumber to unclog and repair and issues.
One reason our role as label readers has become so challenging is because regulations behind certain labels are often lacking, leaving interpretation up to us and the companies producing the labels. Similarly, there is no federal definition of “flushable” or the testing process to determine if something is “flushable”. There is also no federal mandate to use a standard “Do Not Flush” logo for products likely to be flushed that will ultimately cause problems.
Below are some of the most commonly flushed products that are causing problems:
- Personal “wet” wipes, baby wipes and paper towels – some wipes might claim to be flushable, but they do not break down like typical toilet paper and can clog pipes and pumps that help to move our wastewater from our homes to the treatment plant. You probably already knew this about paper towels.
- Dental floss – dental floss is not biodegradable and because it is basically string, it can easily get caught on other objects (i.e. roots) in the pipeline and then serves as a platform for other items to get stuck on. This can quickly build up into a larger problem referred to as “ragging”. Think of monofilament (fishing line) in mangrove habitats.
- Aquarium gravel or cat litter – again, it might say “flushable” on the label, but gravel and litter should never be flushed down the toilet. They can cause unnecessary build-up in the pipes, reducing the amount of wastewater that can flow to the treatment plants. Also, cat waste contains a lot of bacteria and it, like dog poop, should be disposed of in the garbage, not flushed down the toilet.
- Grease or oil – you have probably heard this before, but grease and oil are a “no, no” for going down the drain. It might seem like it goes down no problem when the grease/oil is fresh and hot, but once it gets down into the pipes underground, the contents cool off and slowly cause a buildup (like plaque in our arteries) inside the pipes as the grease/oil turns solid. Just like the cardiovascular surgeon, someone has to go in and clean out the buildup to help keep the pipes flowing.
- Medications – medicine that is flushed down the toilet can dissolve and be dumped into our local water bodies. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals from the water and many pass through the system and can impact our local marine life and even our water supplies. Unwanted or unused medication should be disposed of properly.
- Tampons and sanitary napkins – ladies, when it’s that time of the month, we need to be sure to dispose of feminine hygiene products in the proper receptacles provided in most public restrooms. At home, you can simply wrap used products in toilet paper and place in the trash can.
- Other “disposable” products – disposable products are designed to be thrown away in the trash can, not flushed down the toilet. These products are convenient, but do not break down and can cause major clogging in pipe systems.
So what should you flush?
Just the “Three P’s”: pee, poop, and (toilet) paper. Some industries, like those who produce personal wipes are working to improve their products and/or messaging to help consumers and wastewater treatment facilities. To protect our natural environment and save everyone the hassle, just remember the “Three P’s” next time you go to flush anything down the toilet.