When it's time to get down to, well, business, there are a few obvious things that belong in the can and many that do not. While the act of flushing may seem synonymous to throwing something away or disposing of it for good, there are certain items—from paper towels to contact lenses—that are much better off in the trash than they are flushed away. In fact, whisking away the wrong kind of waste can not only harm your pipe systems, but they can also negatively affect the environment by adding various pollutants into the waterways.
"Anything that doesn't break down in the water can causes serious problems in the waste treatment systems," says Chuck White, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at the Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors Association. "Something like toilet paper can pretty much disintegrate in water. But other items like feminine hygiene products that may be too fibrous can collect in the system pumps and be problematic to clean out." Read on for more commonly flushed items that should never end up in your toilet bowl, and why it's really problematic if they do.
Feminine Hygiene Products
Not only are disposable pads and tampons often bulkier in size and at risk of quickly causing blockage in your pipes and at waste treatment facilities, but they're often also padded, woven, or contain plastic linings making them extra difficult to break down, White explains. If you're using disposable feminine products, consider wrapping them up to dispose in a waste bin or designated receptacle.
While your expired pills may not necessarily clog up your pipes, White says flushing your medication down the drain can be an environmental hazard. "Once medications are dissolved into the water system, there is no way for water treatment plants to get rid of them which leaves concentrations of contaminants in lakes, rivers, and groundwater," White says. Instead, contact your pharmacy about the nearest drop-off site where you can bring your unfinished or unused creams, ointments, drops, and syrups for safe and proper disposal.
They may seem small and flimsy, but these sturdy little lenses do not decompose, not to mention that their size makes it tricky to filter them out at treatment facilities. According to a survey by American Chemical Society, 20 percent of contact wearers said they flushed their lenses daily—that means you're looking at a massive number of contact lenses bound for a life in our waterways. Currently, there is one possible option for recycling your lenses. Thanks to a partnership between Bausch + Lomb and Terracycle, a participating optometry office in your city may collect used lenses and their packaging for proper recycling (the site also has information about getting a location near you to sign up). Otherwise, when it comes to tossing out your lenses, White recommends the trash over the toilet.
Sure, these oils may be liquid at room temperature, but as they travel along the pipelines, where it can get colder underground, the oils have the potential to harden. "As they congeal, these oils can create blockages, similar to if you flushed them down your kitchen drain or garbage disposal," explains White. Instead, designate an empty jar or container for storing any leftover cooking oils, grease, or fats and keep the jar in your fridge to harden the contents. Once solidified, dispose of with your regular household garbage.
With the variety of disposable wipes available on the market, White warns that only a select few may actually be flushable. To find out which side your favorites fall under, he suggests a simple test: fill a small bowl with water and submerge a new, unused wipe inside for 30 minutes. "If you return and find that it is still intact, chances are, it is not flushable and will not breakdown in a timely fashion when flushed." If you're still not sure, he recommends erring on the side of caution and not flushing it at all.
Paper Towels and Napkins
Thicker and more durable than your standard toilet paper, these other paper products are likely too fibrous to breakdown quickly enough to avoid backing up the pipes. "I wouldn't recommend flushing either of these items down the toilet," says White. A more eco-friendly solution? Consider reusable "non paper towels," such as a Swedish dishcloth, which functions like an extra-absorbent sponge, or cloth towels and napkins.
Another seemingly small and harmless household item, floss will no doubt stay intact throughout its lifetime once entering the sewer system, according to White. "Some people can use rather long lengths of floss, too, which can easily get wrapped up in pipes," he adds. To keep your pearly whites—and the waterways—as clean as possible, aim to keep your floss in the trash once you're done using it.