Don't Flush Anything Other Than Toilet Paper

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Public Domain. Pixabay

If you're forced to use substitute materials in the bathroom, you'll need a new disposal method.

"Do not flush anything but toilet paper!" The UK's largest water and wastewater service provider, Thames Water, wants everyone to hear and understand this message clearly. In the face of widespread toilet paper shortages, there is great concern that people will start using substitutes, such as paper towel, facial tissues, and disposable wipes – but these items are never, ever, ever supposed to be flushed.

One supply chain expert at the Cranfield School of Management, Richard Wilding, said, "We are seeing shortages of toilet paper but worryingly also shortages of paper kitchen towels and industrial paper towel used, for example, in garages and workshops and other wipe products." It's fair to assume that people are snatching up these items to use in place of the toilet paper they're now unable to find.

empty toilet paper shelf

© K Martinko – The empty toilet paper shelves at my local supermarket

Anything, however, that is not one of the 3 Ps (pee, poop, and [toilet] paper) can contribute to the creation of disastrous sewer blockages. Fatbergs form when discarded oil and fat congeals and mixes with wrongly-flushed plastic products. Some of these fatbergs can reach colossal size; one in London in 2017 weighed 145 tons, the size of 11 double-decker buses, and was made of a nauseating mix of solidified cooking oil and wet wipes.

As you can imagine, these take many hours of hard labor to break up with pickaxes and high pressure hoses. The Guardian reports that Thames Water "clears about 75,000 blockages from its network of sewers every year, at a cost of £18m." It's necessary work, otherwise the fatbergs will prevent sewage from flowing and cause it to back up the system, creating social chaos and jeopardizing health.

The solution?

If you can't flush it, drop that dirty paper towel, Kleenex or wipe into a lined trash can (use an old grocery bag or paper bag) that's placed next to your toilet for this very purpose – and welcome to how much of the rest of the world disposes of its toilet paper! I had to learn this method when I moved to Brazil in the mid-2000s, where even dissolvable toilet paper cannot be flushed because the sewage system can't handle it. Up until then, I'd never realized what a reflexive action it is to drop paper into a toilet. After countless times of fishing it out (not fun), I retrained myself and it became a more normal habit. Change the bag daily and you won't notice a smell.

Alternatively – and I realize this might sound extreme to some people, but please, let's keep it in perspective – avoid the disposable products and make your own reusable TP squares using an old T-shirt or flannel sheet. Wipe and launder. And before you turn up your nose, keep in mind that this isn't any different from cloth diapers, which many of us parents have used for years. You could also order a Kula Cloth, which is a handy piece of equipment to own at this time. Better yet, take the advice that TreeHugger writer Lloyd Alter has been giving us for years and buy a bidet attachment – if you're lucky enough to find one.

But whatever you do, don't contribute to the growth of fatbergs in the tunnels beneath your feet, because that's the last thing our city officials want to deal with right now. As a Thames Water spokesperson said, "Fatbergs are a vivid reminder to us all that out of sight is not gone for ever. They are like monsters from the deep, lurking and slowly growing under our feet. Our advice is always to bin your fat and wipes, and don’t feed the fatberg."

Set up that trash can now (and learn the proper way of discarding cooking oil while you're at it).