When you really think about it, indoor plumbing is pretty darn cool. We take for granted that fresh clean water is brought safely into our houses and waste water gets carried away, out of sight and out of mind. This convenience has only been around for 150 years or so, and plenty of people worldwide still don’t have it. The fact that we give this so little thought is causing big problems for those unsung, intrepid souls working in water treatment.
Too many of us treat the toilet like a garbage can, when our sewage systems are designed strictly for water-soluble waste. Here’s a quick rundown of some things you should never put down a toilet or drain.
Personal Hygiene Items
Condoms, bandages, dental floss, diapers, feminine hygiene products, sponges, cotton balls and swabs; they all frequently wind up getting flushed. It should be obvious that these will cause problems at the other end of the pipe! Even the items in this list (such as cotton balls or natural sponges) that you might consider to be biodegradable will take years to break down under the very best conditions. Anything that you flush must liquify within the few hours it takes for your waste water to reach the water treatment plant.
Expired prescriptions frequently get flushed, and yes, they’re soluble in water, but there’s no simple way to extract them from the treated water that returns to the river. That means traces of your unused medicine wind up in wildlife downstream. You might think that it would be diluted down to a harmless level, but certain drugs can cause problems for fish and wildlife even at very low concentrations. Some drugs will accumulate over time, especially in fish and shellfish; synthetic hormones like those found in birth control pills are particularly problematic for aquatic life. Take your unused medications to any pharmacy so it can be safely incinerated.
Fat, oil and grease might be liquid when you pour it down the drain with a stream of hot tap water, but when it gets to the sewer it will congeal and collect, becoming a nightmare when combined with all the various types of solid waste down there. Instead of contributing to this problem, collect waste oil and grease into a can or carton, and dispose of it in the garbage once it has cooled. Pans and utensils should also have any grease wiped from them before they are washed. Ideally, the minimal quantity of oil or grease that does make it down the drain should be fully emulsified with dish soap in order to minimize these problems.
In the last decade or so personal wipes have become increasingly popular, frequently marketed with the assurance they are appropriate to flush. Some companies that manufacture these wipes are at odds with water treatment experts on this point, while others have quietly dropped the “flushable” claim from their packaging, but there’s no doubt these products have contributed to an uptick in sewage treatment problems.
If you’re wondering if a product you use is appropriate to flush, try doing this simple test yourself: Take a jar, fill it halfway with water, and add a sample of the item you want to test– a “flushable” wipe, paper towel, etc.– then give the jar a good shake for thirty seconds or so. If the item doesn’t completely disintegrate after that, it really doesn’t belong in the sewer.
Chemical Drain Cleaners
We recommend you not use these products at all; in our opinion, they’re snake oil. The way that clogs form in your pipes is nothing like the tidy, compact clogs in the pristine transparent pipes you see in their commercials. You might get a short-term improvement in flow by pouring large quantities of corrosive sodium hydroxide down your drain, but the clog will likely return in short order, and it’s not worth the cumulative damage to your pipes. And never, ever try it in a clogged toilet; these chemicals can generate enough heat to crack the porcelain. More important is the fact that this toxic stuff ultimately ends up in the river! The much more effective and safe method to clear up a clog is to use a good old fashioned drain auger and/or plunger.
Know Someone in Water Treatment? Give ‘em a hug!
Have a heart and give some thought to the heroes that have to fish out the material you shouldn’t have flushed in the first place! Have a look at the City Of Calgary’s guidelines on what not to flush, and if you’ve got a problem with clogged pipes, reduced plumbing flow, or backups… Who you gonna call? (Hint: It’s us.)