January 22, 2019
Flush toilet

5 Things Never To Flush

by Paula Derrow  

You recycle, you compost, you think before you toss something in the trash. But chances are you flush nearly everything down the toilet, from dental floss to hair from your brush to those expired allergy pills. What’s the harm of using the toilet as a handy trash can? Plenty, according to experts in waste management, who are the ones dealing with the mess when these items clog the system, causing overflows and threatening the safety of our nation’s water supply.

The three P’s for toilets

The only three things that should be flushed are human waste and toilet paper—or “the three P’s" as waste experts call them: pee, poop, and (toilet) paper.

“It’s a really bad idea to use your toilet as a trash can, especially when you have older plumbing,” says Abby Figueroa, senior public information representative of the East Bay Municipal Utility District near San Francisco. That’s because those old pipes—and even the newer ones—aren’t designed to remove anything other than human waste and TP.

What not to flush

Here’s a list of the five worst flushing offenders:

1. “Flushable” wipes. Wet wipes are in, and not just with the toddler set. People use these moistened clothes to whisk off eye makeup, sop up a spill, or wipe their hands after using the toilet. Wet wipes typically can’t be broken down and dispersed, even if the label says they’re fine to flush. Worse, they often combine with other waste in the system to form giant blobs of indestructible detritus that London officials have dubbed “fat bergs.” In 2015, a 10-ton wet-wipe mass broke the Chelsea sewer there, and cost the Thames Water system about $600,000 in US dollars. New York City officials estimate they spent $18 million dealing with wet wipe problems between 2010 and 2015.

If you must use wipes, throw them in the trash, along with tampons and sanitary napkins, diapers, and condoms. (Yes, believe it or not, many people toss those things in the toilet, too.)

2. Dental floss. Those snippets of string are tiny, but they, too, aren’t meant to dissolve. And once dental floss snags other materials, they create a knotty problem in septic systems. The same goes for cotton balls or makeup pads: They're small, but terrible for plumbing. Like wipes, they don’t break down completely and can lead to clogs.

3. Human hair. Long hair, especially, can get caught in the machinery of septic system pumps. And hair can combine with other materials to create clumps that block pipes, particularly at the joints where they bend.

4. Cigarette butts. Besides looking and smelling ugly when they float in the toilet bowl, cigarette butts also don’t disintegrate. Just one more reason, if you need one, to quit smoking. If you do smoke, fully extinguish the cigarette and toss the butt in the trash.

5. Expired or unused medications. Some people think it’s safest to flush old medications down the toilet, especially if they have children in the house or worry that a scavenging cat or bird could eat pills thrown out in the trash. But the chemicals in those medications can end up in the water supply, albeit in very small quantities. And while most of the active ingredients in drugs are excreted in human waste, dumping unused pills directly into the bowl adds to the cumulative toll on nature. Indeed, a 2014 British study found that shrimp that had ingested tiny amounts of fluoxetine—the active ingredient in Prozac—behaved in erratic ways that made them more vulnerable to predators.

To keep the water supply (and your kids) safe, it’s best to take old medications to a local pharmacy or store that participates in the government’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day program. You can also call your local trash company to find locations that accept old medications. Some pharmacies will take back your old drugs any day of the year, and in some cities you can drop old drugs off at local police stations.

If there is no take-back location near you, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends you mix the old medication with coffee grounds, kitty litter, or anything else that is utterly unpalatable. Then seal it in a disposable container like a sealed plastic baggie and throw it in the trash.

The FDA does suggest flushing away a few particularly dangerous drugs, such as potent narcotics, because a tiny amount could kill a child or a pet.

Also see How to Dispose of Old Medications.