Please Do Not Flush

Please Do Not Flush

Even though a product may be small enough to flush, does not mean it should be. Flushing items down the toilet that are not meant to be flushed, including those labeled flushable, can lead to problems in the sewer system, at the wastewater treatment facility and for the environment.

This handy two-page infographic illustrates things never to flush!

Please Do Not Flush

An Indispensable Guide to Flushing

Here’s a problem that nobody wants to mess with, clogged toilets, backed up sewer systems, and the costly repairs to fix this stink.

ToiletWhile there are many obvious things not to flush down the toilet, an astonishing amount of non-flushable wipes, paper products, dental floss, and other dispensable hygiene products are flushed down toilets every day. This has contributed to cities and municipalities dealing with chronic clogged sewer systems and expensive wastewater treatment maintenance, not to mention homeowners who face the inconvenient problem of having a toilet back up in their home.

These raw sewage messes aren’t pretty and are not easy or inexpensive to fix.

Here’s the indispensable truth about what goes down the toilet.

manholeEven though many items can be flushed down the toilet, it’s misleading to believe that everything is ‘flushable’ and safe for our sewer systems and environment. The journey is just beginning when that swirling eddy of water makes everything in the toilet bowl disappear.

All the solids flushed down the toilet that don’t dissolve, eventually end up at a wastewater treatment facility. Traveling miles and miles through pipes underneath our streets and sidewalks, this raw sewage flows by gravity or with the help of pump stations towards a wastewater treatment facility. Most of this waste is taken care of, out of sight, by Municipalities who work every day to maintain this process.

However, the pump stations are periodically clogged by non-disposable waste that is flushed down the toilet. Products that are designated as ‘non-flushable’ are often made with plastic fibers and do not break down in wastewater systems. Even products that are labeled as ‘flushable’, do not easily disintegrate in water like toilet paper.

Wastewater Plant
Disposable wipes at a New York wastewater treatment plant. (New York City Department of Environment Protection)

For example, popular flushable personal care wipes (for both babies and adults) are marketed as a convenient, portable, and a hygienic way to keep clean. Manufacturers claim these flushable wipes are septic-safe or safe for sewer systems. The problem is these products take much longer to break down as compared to traditional toilet paper.

And, here’s the reason why.

A well-known manufacturer of flushable wipes claims their product passes what is called a ‘slosh’ distribution test. The wipes, which are made of ‘non-woven clothlike material’, must be strong enough to handle the manufacturing process, hold up while being used, and still be weak enough to break apart after being flushed down the toilet.

slosh test boxThe slosh test checks the potential for wipes to break down in water during agitating conditions. A box containing water and one or more wipes tips back and forth, slowly and repeatedly “sloshing” the wipes for three hours. All fibers from the test are strained from the slosh box and then poured through a 12½-millimeter sieve (consistent with industry guidelines) and rinsed for two minutes to measure the percentage of fiber material that passes through the sieve.

The problem is, unlike toilet paper that quickly disperses in circulating water, the tightly woven fabric of the wipes takes much longer to breakdown (as noted in the slosh test), and while these products may not clog pipes immediately, imagine everything flushed down the toilet snagging on it, expanding, and gathering together to clog pipes and sewage pumps.

Sewer workersPrivate and municipal sewer system operators end up sifting through what’s left in the wastewater to clear these obstructions—often costing millions of dollars to maintain and repair.

Sadly, many of these disposable products are regularly flushed down the toilet. In a recent study, more than 98 percent of what was found at a wastewater treatment plant was non-flushable personal care wipes, paper towels, dental floss, diapers, tampons, condoms, cleaning wipes and other ‘trash’ not intended to be flushed.

And there are many more flushing no-nos—seemingly harmless and not so harmless items regularly flushed down the toilet.

Here is a list of things never to flush:

Baby wipes and diapers (including types labeled ‘flushable’ or ‘disposable’): Diapers can take up to 500 years to degrade in a landfill. These highly absorbent synthetic materials are slow to breakdown and can block sewer systems.

Paper towels: Just like wipes, these common household items are designed to not breakdown when wet and absorb liquids.

Cotton balls, cosmetic pads and cotton swabs: These items tend to gather in pipe bends causing blockages.

Dental Floss:  This little string can cause havoc to plumbing and sewer systems.

Medications or Supplements: Wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to breakdown pharmaceuticals. While drugs may dilute in the waste stream, studies have shown the presence of medicines such as steroid hormones and antidepressants in wastewater effluent. The EPA1 refers to this as “Personal Care Products as Pollutants,” which also includes residues from cosmetics, agribusiness, and veterinary use.

Medical Supplies: Razors, bandages and hypodermic needles are often flushed, but quite simply, they don’t degrade. The razor blades and needles also present a danger to employees who need to remove the items that clog the system.

Rubber:  Items such as latex gloves and condoms, are made of a material that is not intended to breakdown in liquid.

Cat litter (including types labeled ‘flushable’): The absorbent properties of litter (generally clay and sand) are designed to ‘clump’ and will clog sewer systems.

Feminine Hygiene Products (sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators): Like cat litter, these products are designed to absorb liquids and swell in the process, clogging pipes, get stuck in bends and block sewer lines.

Fats, oil, and grease: Known in the wastewater industry as ‘FOG,’ are liquids that solidify when cooled, and this creates significant problems for public wastewater systems, as well as drains in your home.

Hair: Like dental floss, flushed hair can cause tangled blockages ensnaring everything that passes by.

Food products: banana peels, apple core, leftovers.  While these may degrade over time, food products simply do not disintegrate fast enough and can cause blockages throughout the system.

Trash of any kind: All this litter does not easily biodegrade.

  • Candy and other food wrappers
  • Cigarette butts
  • Rags
  • Plastic Bags

Chemicals: paint, automotive fluids, solvents, and poisons, are just terrible pollutants to flush. Just as wastewater treatment plants are not designed to screen out pharmaceuticals, these facilities are not designed to eliminate toxic chemicals.

Heavy Metals: These pollutants include, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lithium (think batteries) and lead, etc. Please dispose of any of these toxins properly to prevent harm to the environment and the potential for serious health risks.

Flushable toilets and the wastewater facilities that treat our raw sewage are indispensable services in modern life.  It’s long time we take responsibility and think twice about what is flushed down the toilet—for the sake of our sewers systems and wastewater treatment processes, and our indispensable precious environment.


Download our Please Do Not Flush – Infographic.

Alternative Toilet Technology – What’s the Stink About?

droughtIn America, we use about 30% of our nation’s drinking water supply – fresh, treated, clean water – to flush our toilets. We are suffering from one of the worst droughts in recent history, and our nation is literally running out of water. We need to conserve the water we have, and the most efficient way to accomplish this task is through alternative toilet technology. Luckily, engineers work every day designing these eco-conscious toilets, some of which we will showcase here.

High Efficiency Toilets

Before we get into the newer technology of High Efficiency Toilets (HET), let’s first take a look at the traditional toilet.  The old-fashioned Gravity Feed toilet is certainly reliable. It’s been around for decades and gets the job done. With each flush, a valve opens up and gravity forces water down a tunnel, while the resulting pressure forces waste down another, lower, tunnel called a trapway. However, until recently, this traditional design has used 3.5 gallons per flush (GPF) or more, some models using up to 5 GPF. Once the 1.6 GPF restrictions took effect, the Gravity Feed toilet didn’t perform quite so well, often clogging and requiring multiple flushes – which defeats the purpose of a low-flow toilet in the first place. As a result, engineers started working on water efficient toilets, commonly referred to as HETs. HETs are designed to work with existing plumbing and, while they still use water, they use significantly less water than traditional toilets.

Dual-Flush Toilets

dual-flush-toilet1-jpgA step up in effectiveness is the Dual-Flush design. This high efficiency toilet earns the name by offering two ways to eliminate waste, usually by the use of two separate buttons to press. Press one and only about 1.3 gallons is released, which works fine for removing liquid waste. Press the second (or both buttons together in some instances) and 1.6 gallons is released.

Other models vary the technique. Some use as little as 0.8 GPF to 1.1 GPF. Some allow for a more traditional-style handle but one that can also be pulled up rather than just pushed down. Move it one way and you get the partial flush; the other way releases the larger amount of water.

Pressure Assist Toilets

The next step up, in the sense of efficiency and oomph, is the Pressure Assist design. Here, the toilet doesn’t rely solely on gravity (as do both the Gravity Feed and many Dual-Flush models) but adds artificially generated pressure. Typically, that pressure is supplied by a plastic or metal canister that holds air. With each flush, the air adds additional pressure to that supplied by the force of gravity. And the combination is impressive: they can typically handle 40 feet of toilet paper in a single flush without jamming. Solid human waste is no challenge to these units.

Still, they have a downside. They don’t have motors that create the pressure and they put extra stress on your pipes. Those two facts imply two more: your home water system must supply adequate pressure in the first place and your pipes must be able to withstand the flush pressure. Fortunately, most homes satisfy those requirements, especially those built in the past 40 years.

Power Assist Toilets

A less-common variation on the HET theme is the Power Assist design. It actually incorporates a pump that forces water at higher velocity than is possible from a gravity feed or simple pressure assist method. The flush volumes are usually between one and 1.3 GPF, so they satisfy the legal restrictions.

However, this type typically requires a 120-volt electrical source to power the motor that drives the pump. While they’re safe, many consumers don’t feel comfortable having a water device like a toilet so directly connected to an electrical supply. They’re also generally much more expensive and usually overkill for homeowners. As a consequence, they’re more often found in commercial establishments and even there they are relatively rare.

Waterless Toilets

With our nation’s water crisis looming, waterless toilets make the most sense, because they use literally no water. And the even better news about waterless toilets is that, besides the waterless urinal, they don’t connect to any plumbing or infrastructure, which can save thousands in new construction and on water and sewer bills. But is waterless toilet technology advanced enough to be viable in the typical household or commercial setting? Let’s take a look.

Waterless Urinals

waterlessurinalWaterless urinals have gained in popularity and are becoming more widely used in commercial settings, even being approved by the plumbing code since 2006. They use gravity to force urine down through a trap that contains a heavy liquid, which allows urine to pass through while forming a seal against odors. Waterless urinals use zero water, discharge into standard, existing plumbing lines, and are easy to clean. Also, since urine is sterile and bacteria develop only when urine is mixed with water, waterless urinals remain odorless. Waterless urinals are currently used in San Diego schools, the L.A. Coliseum, and the Taj Mahal, and they have been mandated in army facilities since 2010. They also count towards LEED certification points. There really are no drawbacks to the waterless urinal save one – but it’s a big one: half the world’s population is women. Enough said.

Composting Toilets

composting-toilet-diagramA composting (or biological) toilet system contains and processes excrement, toilet paper, carbon additive, and sometimes, food waste. Unlike a septic system, a composting toilet system relies on unsaturated conditions where aerobic bacteria break down waste. This process is similar to a yard waste composter. If sized and maintained properly, a composting toilet breaks down waste to just 10-30% of its original volume. The resulting soil-like material, called “humus” legally must be either buried or removed by a licensed septage hauler in accordance with state and local regulations.

Composting toilet systems require no water and have low power consumption. They can also accept kitchen waste, thus reducing household garbage. Composting toilets are the most environmentally friendly of the new generation of toilets. Composting human waste and burying it around tree roots and nonedible plants keeps organic wastes productively cycling in the environment, and composting toilet systems divert nutrient and pathogen-containing effluent from soil, surface water, and groundwater. In many states, installing a composting toilet system allows the property owner to keep a reduced-size leach field, minimizing costs and disruption of landscapes.

Of course, there are a few drawbacks as well. Maintenance of composting toilet systems requires more responsibility and commitment by users and owners than conventional wastewater systems, and improperly installed or maintained systems have the potential to cause some problems. Using an inadequately treated end-product as a soil amendment may have possible health consequences, and improper maintenance makes cleaning difficult and may lead to health hazards and odor problems. Too much liquid residual (leachate) in the composter can disrupt the process if it is not drained and properly managed. In addition, there may be aesthetic issues because the excrement in some systems may be in sight.

Incinerating Toilets

Incinolet-Electric-Incinerating-Toilet-showing-parted-bowl-and-ignitionIncinerating toilets are self-contained units consisting of a traditional commode-type seat connected to a holding tank and a gas-fired or electric heating system to incinerate waste products deposited in the holding tank.  The incineration products are primarily water and a fine, non-hazardous ash that can be disposed of easily and without infection hazard. Typically the user drops in a coffee-filter type liner, uses the toilet, then “flushes”. The liner drops into a chamber, which heats up to approximately 1200 degrees, and incinerates the waste over a period of time, usually one to two hours. As a safety feature, the incinerator automatically turns itself off if the lid is lifted, thus eliminating the chance of bathroom burns.

Incinerating toilets use no water at all, and they produce only about a tablespoon per use of a fine, sterile ash that can be disposed of in the trash. They are simple to install, easy to use, and are relatively odorless in comparison to other waterless toilets. However, they do also have some drawbacks. Incinerating destroys nutrients in the waste and also requires energy, resulting in higher than average energy costs for users. In addition, units are not entirely pollution-free, as they require either electricity or propane, both of which produce some air pollutants.

Hope for the Future

If we could save the third of our nation’s drinking water that we are flushing down our toilets, we would actually solve the nation’s water crisis. And researchers and engineers are working every day to do just that: to find a sustainable, cost-effective solution to the wastewater problem facing America. At the moment, there is not yet a universal answer to our nation’s toilet troubles. However, with the abundance of emerging technologies and the combined focus of researchers and engineers, it is only a matter of time before our wastewater – and therefore water – woes are permanently solved.