Since my earliest memories in the early 1990s, I was taught not to flush certain things like hair or paper towel because they would plug the toilet. The fear of embarrassment from plugging a toilet at a friend’s place has stopped me from flushing anything but toilet paper down the toilet.
Over the last decade, an increasing number of consumer products are being touted as “flushable”. These products range from facial tissue, moist wipes, toddler wipes, baby wipes, and other items labelled as “flushable”, like toilet cleaning brushes, dog poop bags, and diaper liners. It got me wondering: Are these products really okay to flush? Or do they cause problems in the unseen sewer systems and local environment?
A recent report published by researchers from Ryerson University delves into these questions. Because of the report’s findings, it is receiving a lot of media attention. What the researchers found might be surprising to some.
An overwhelming majority of products labelled as “flushable” are not even close to meeting flushability criteria. In fact, nothing except for human waste (pee and poop) and toilet paper should be going down the toilet.
The research in the report titled “Defining Flushabiliy” for Sewer Use tested 101 consumer products for four things: drainline clearance, disintegration, fibre composition, and adherence to packaging labelling.
Drainline clearance looks at the number of flushes a product needs to clear the toilet pipe plus a drainline. The researchers found for some baby wipes, it took a total of five flushes for the product to clear from the pipe. (Toilet paper is only 1 or 2 flushes.)
Disintegration looks at whether the product can disperse/fall apart in water. For the 101 products tested, 90 products failed to disperse/fall apart sufficiently, and many stayed fully intact. The only product that passed the disintegration test was toilet tissue.
The fibre composition test looks at the percent of products with human-made fibres (synthetic like polypropylene or regenerated cellulosic material like rayon). Overall 75% of the consumer products tested contained at least one type of human-made material. This is important as synthetic materials add microplastics to wastewater, which eventually ends up in rivers and lakes.
When it comes to labelling, the report explains that “Do Not Flush” symbols should be mandatory on things like baby wipes, cleansing wipes, and diaper liners if they fail the INDA/EDANA Code of Practice. Unfortunately, many of the products that require this symbol did not include it on their packaging.
How to stop the flushing
In all, this report illustrates that a correlation might exist between the rising number of “flushable” products on the market, and the rising number of issues in municipal wastewater systems. That’s why it is important to come up with ways to curb the number of unflushable items going down the toilet.
Luckily this report presents a number of high-level recommendations with applicable methods to tackle the problem of misleading ‘flushable’ labels on everyday products. The recommendations range from starting public awareness campaigns to standardizing regulations for companies making unflushable products.
Recently Metro Vancouver began working on a recommendation from the report, which is to raise awareness around flushing habits. They started the “The Unflushables” campaign and published short educational cartoon videos like the Unflushables - The Full Story:
What about medications?
Another part of the “The Unflushables” campaign is tackling the important issue of pharmaceutical pollution. Metro Vancouver made a video called Never Flush Medication to raise public awareness on the issue:
Tackling the issues of flushables and pharmaceutical pollution are especially important for Lake Ontario considering the high population densities and the large agricultural lands near the lake. A recent report published by Pollution Probe and the Clean Water Foundation examines the sources, pathways and impacts of pharmaceuticals in the Great Lakes.
They found that many sources of pharmaceutical pollution exist in the Great Lakes including municipal wastewater from homes, hospitals, landfills, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, as well as from agriculture and aquaculture. Like unflushable products, the main way that pharmaceuticals end up in the Great Lakes is from municipal wastewater treatment plants and combined sewer overflows.
The consequences associated with pharmaceutical pollution are wide-ranging. For example, higher mortality rates are observed in fish living in areas testing positive for environmentally relevant concentrations of pharmaceuticals. Yet a significant knowledge gap exists in the research.
Finally, the study found key failings in the coordination of strategies to reduce pharmaceutical pollution from entering the Great Lakes. Nonetheless, with little research, communities can find ways to dispose of their unused and expired medication. In Ontario, you can now return medications to a pharmacy in your community through the Ontario Medications Return Program (OMRP).
“Flushables” becoming floatables
In many cases, the (not) “flushables” and pharmaceuticals going down toilets in Ontario end up in the lakes, rivers, and streams due to combined sewer systems. Toilet water and anything flushed along with it is supposed to go to a designated wastewater treatment plant. But, during rain, combined sewers fill up. Instead of going to the treatment plant, sewage overflows into local waterbodies. In Ontario, 486 combined sewer pipes release the mixed waste and stormwater plus the (not) “flushable” and medications products into Lake Ontario. These non “flushable” items thus become floatables (ie condoms, tampons, tampon applicators, feminine pads, wet wipes…) in the water.
Ultimately, both these reports illustrate that the only truly flushable things are human waste that has gone through the human digestive tract and toilet paper. All else must be disposed of in other ways to help protect public health, local water bodies, and the environment.
The embarrassment of clogging the toilet is still a big motivator for being mindful of what goes down the toilet. If we don’t want to clog the pipes at our friend’s house, we probably don’t want to clog the lake that gives us our drinking water, beaches, and way of life either.