We don’t often think twice about what we’re flushing down the toilet — because why would we? — but chances are there are a number of things that we’re absent mindedly tossing into the commode that could do some serious damage.
The thing most of us don’t consider is that when something harmful goes down the toilet, it’s not just our own plumbing that could pay the price, but the water system that gets pumped through our municipal taps.
“The water from our toilet goes into our rivers, lakes and oceans, and the sewer system isn’t equipped to weed out all the toxins,” says Melissa Maker, author, YouTuber and owner of Clean My Space.
She also says to consider that every flush of the toilet consumes three gallons of water, so don’t uselessly flush harmful things when you can just drop them in a garbage, recycling or compost bin.
When non-flushable items go down the toilet, they may magically disappear from sight but they do end up somewhere. And that place is what sanitation authorities call “Fatberg.”
“If you look up ‘Fatberg’ on Wikipedia, the opening description is ‘a congealed lump of fat, sanitary items, wet wipes and similar items found in sewer systems, which do not break down like toilet paper,'” Maker says. “Basically, it’s a build-up of oil and grease, and the pictures are disgusting.”
The following is Maker’s top 9 list of things that should never be flushed down the toilet — and the three things that can.
#1. Dental floss
It may look small and harmless, but dental floss is not biodegradable, Maker says. In addition, by virtue of its nature, it can easily get tangled and wrap itself around pipes, thus contributing to a clog.
#2. Grease, oil, fat and food
A lot of people think dumping grease down the toilet is better than dumping it down the kitchen drain, but that’s a dangerous fallacy.
“The thing about grease is that it goes down like a liquid, but it will eventually cool and once it does, it congeals and builds up on the sides of pipes. Over time, that pipe opening will get smaller and smaller until nothing passes through it anymore,” Maker explains.
Instead, she says to collect grease in a sealable baggie and once it’s full, simply throw it in the trash.
“Simply put, they’re made from plastic and are not biodegradable,” Maker says. Don’t flush them.
#4. Disposable wipes (and paper towels)
These are a real point of contention with many people, Maker says, especially since some disposable wipes say that they’re flushable.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s like we’re being set up for failure. If you’re using a disposable wipe to clean yourself after using the toilet, you don’t want to throw it in the garbage,” she says.
But the reality is that the fibres that make up the disposable wipe are considerably thicker than toilet paper. Even three-ply paper breaks down very easily in water, but the wipes won’t break down. The same principles apply for paper towels.
#5. Tampons and maxi pads
“There’s a reason why you’ll see signs in bathrooms at restaurants about not flushing these things,” Maker says.
These products are designed to be absorbent and they’ll expand past the point of where they can pass through the pipes. In addition, the fabric is not designed to be biodegradable. The same applies to cotton pads and swabs.
Maker says, in all cases, your best bet is to wrap the item in tissue and throw it in the garbage.
Much like the aforementioned products, condoms do not biodegrade, so they’ll inherently contribute to Fatberg. However, the other issue with condoms is that they can act like a balloon.
“If it isn’t tied off, the condom can fill with water and get stuck in the waterways,” Maker says.
It may be a natural fibre that comes from our bodies, but hair can wreak havoc on your pipes. Not only can it clog drains, but it can also trap other things leading to unpleasant odours and slow drains.
“You may think that washing your face won’t cause hair to fall into the sink, or the one or two that do fall in are negligible, but it adds up,” Maker says.
She advises getting a mesh hair collector for your sink and tub.
This isn’t about clogging pipes, but contaminating the water supply. As mentioned above, the sewer system isn’t equipped to weed out all toxins. If you’re throwing prescription medication down the toilet, those pharmaceuticals could make their way into the water that flows out of kitchen faucets.
#9. Kitty litter
“I understand the desperation some people have to get rid of the smell of kitty litter, but it’s absorbent,” Maker says. And just like the other absorbent items on this list, it will expand with water and potentially clog pipes.
In addition, while what the cat excretes isn’t toxic, there are toxic ingredients in the kitty litter that shouldn’t be introduced to the water system.
Maker says there are some kitty litters on the market that are safe to flush — she recently heard of one that’s made from coconut husks — but any litter purchased from a commercial pet store shouldn’t be flushed.
What can be flushed?
“Three things,” Maker says, “number one, number two and toilet paper.”