You might not give much thought to what happens after you flush the toilet. Press the lever or push the button, and your participation is done, right? Well, mostly.
Modern municipal systems make sure that you don’t have to worry about sewage backups. They take care of the hundreds of billions of gallons of water we generate each day, treating it so that most can be put back into circulation. Right now, those sewage treatment systems need our help.
You’ve either experienced it personally or seen it on the news. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to panic buying that’s made it nearly impossible to find toilet paper. People have turned to the use of flushable wipes if they can’t find toilet paper. They’re also using more paper towels, napkins, and disposal sanitizing wipes. Much more than toilet paper is getting flushed.
These non-toilet paper products are causing a growing number of problems for municipal treatment plants around the world. Even worse, we might be unknowingly contributing to the problem because we see the word “flushable” and think it’s okay to let it go down the toilet.
Even before the current situation, municipal treatment plants were dealing with the consequences of things being flushed down the toilet that cause operational problems. Pam Elrado is the deputy commissioner of the New York City Bureau of Wastewater Treatment. She notes that her department’s wastewater treatment plants process up to 3 billion gallons of wastewater per day.
“Even if it says ‘flushable’ on the box,” Eldorado says, “if it’s not toilet paper, it should not be flushed. So what happens is all those baby wipes, and facial wipes, and Clorox bleach wipes and whatever makeup stuff that people flush comes to the plant.” She says the department spends over $7 million annually to screen it out and remove it.
Closer to home, the city of Tampa has stepped up their public messaging to try to get people to flush only toilet paper. Wastewater treatment facilities there remove up to 400 dump truck loads each year of things that shouldn’t have been flushed.
Keeping things moving along
When our wastewater treatment systems aren’t busy battling what shouldn’t be flushed, they do amazing things. By the time the water is ready for release, it’s surprisingly clean. In fact, nearly half of all the agricultural water in Israel is from the country’s wastewater plants.
Many of these systems depend on gravity and water flow to move wastewater along. Many ‘flushable’ wipes are made of synthetic materials. They may easily exit your toilet, but it doesn’t mean they’ll make it through your home’s pipes. What’s worse is that while most of these products do dissolve, they meet up with things like grease poured down drains and reform to create what wastewater treatment personnel call “fatbergs.”
CNN recently reported that states ranging from California to South Carolina are issuing warnings that flushing wipes, paper towels and similar products down toilets will clog sewers and cause backups and overflows at wastewater treatment facilities. It’s an additional public health risk beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Some manufacturers are pushing back, saying that flushable wipes don’t pose a danger. This may be true, but the danger refers to septic systems. So play it safe. You can continue to not have to think about what happens after you flush the toilet by allowing only toilet paper to exit your home this way.
Save your pipes. Don’t flush the wipes!