Flushed Away? Sarah Shaw

As consumers we’re paying more and more attention to the environmental impact of what we put in our shopping baskets. But what about the stuff we put down our toilets?

According to the Marine Conservation Society, around 8.5% of all litter washing up on the UK’s beaches comes directly from our toilets. Cotton buds, cigarette buds, tampons, plasters, nappies, condoms, sanitary towels, dental floss: all are regularly flushed down the toilet, and all find their way to our coastlines. This is because these products contain plastics, which can take centuries to biodegrade and so can’t be dealt with by waste treatment facilities. Once on our beaches, marine wildlife can mistake these items for food – leading to more plastics in the food chain. Yep, you read that right: you may literally end up eating what you put down the toilet.

Even so-called ‘flushable’ toilet wipes end up on the shoreline. Despite what manufacturers claim, flushable wet wipes don’t really break down and disperse in the same way as toilet paper. In 2017 the Great British Beach Clean weekend found an average of 27 wet wipes per 100 meters of coastline, which was an increase of 94% from the previous year. The problem is getting worse, not better.

As well as contributing to coastal litter, wet wipes also cause blockages in our sewer systems by clumping together into what are known as ‘fatbergs’. Fatbergs are caused by a mixture of cooking fats, wet wipes and other items that are wrongly flushed down the toilet: even seemingly harmless bits of hair or pieces of dental floss get snagged up in the clump, which can grow to the size of a double-decker bus. These fatbergs can clog sewers so severely that they risk flooding the streets above with raw sewage. As well as being a public health risk, fatbergs are expensive: Severn Trent spends over £5 million every year clearing such blockages, a cost which is passed on to consumers.

So what can you do? For starters, ditch the ‘flushable’ toilet wipes and use regular toilet paper instead – you’ll save yourself money, and our marine life will thank you for it. Also, make sure you have a bin in your bathroom so that your visitors have somewhere other than the toilet to dispose of their hygiene products; it’ll be easier for you to get rid of little things like plasters and hair, too. In the kitchen, pour leftover cooking fats into an old container (such as an empty yogurt pot or margarine tub) and throw the filled container into the bin.

And remember: if it isn’t wee, paper or poo you mustn’t flush it down the loo!