You're Flushing Tons of Things That You Shouldn't

'Flushable' wipes, paper towels are major causes of sewer clogs

By Newser Editors and Wire Services

Posted Sep 23, 2013 4:20 PM CDT | Updated Sep 28, 2013 7:53 AM CDT

(Newser) – Wastewater officials across the country are trying to spread the message that you can't just flush anything down the toilet, and they're taking particular aim at wipes. Vancouver, Wash., has a campaign called "Smart Bunnies" that shows a bespectacled rabbit sitting on a toilet and the tag line: "Smart bunnies flush only toilet tissue ... All wipes and other products will clog the pipes!" According to campaign materials, "Many new products, such as wipes, claim to be flushable. However, that doesn't mean they're treatable in our wastewater system." Among items it says don't belong in the toilet: cleaning rags, reinforced paper towels, baby diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, and medical bandages, tubing, and pads.

A public awareness campaign by the Orange County Sanitation District in California called "What 2 Flush" emphasizes that the toilet is meant only for the three Ps—pee, poop, and toilet paper. It even says facial tissues are too sturdy to be flushed. Among the more unusual items it says people commonly flush that risk causing clogs: cat litter, condoms, and dental floss. A study by the Portland Water District in Maine in 2011 analyzed what was causing clogs in their sewer pipes and came up with this analysis:

  • 42% paper products, including paper towels
  • 24% baby wipes
  • 17% hygiene products, including feminine pads and tampons
  • 8% "flushable" wipes
  • Remainder, other items: including household wipes, cosmetic pads, and medical materials.

Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey, holds up a wipe he flushed through his test toilet in his office.
Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey, holds up a wipe he flushed through his test toilet in his office.   (Julio Cortez)
Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey, holds up a wipe he flushed through his test toilet in his office.
Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey, holds up a wipe he flushed through his test toilet in his office.   (Julio Cortez)
In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, photo, a wipe is put through a machine that tests its strength in active water. The wipe had by then been in moving water for 15:51 hours and was still holding shape.
In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, photo, a wipe is put through a machine that tests its strength in active water. The wipe had by then been in moving water for 15:51 hours and was still holding shape.   (Julio Cortez)
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