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#dontflushthis: 7 Things You Should Never Flush Down a Toilet

Most of us know not to use the toilet as a trash can. But ask any plumber and they’ll tell you horror stories about the things they’ve cleared out from toilets — from children’s toys and jewelry to cell phones and credit cards.

As tempting as it is to sometimes chuck something down the toilet, there’s a good reason why it’s a bad idea. More than being embarrassing, some of the common things we flush risk damaging septic tanks and city wastewater treatment centers, and in the long run that could mean higher bills for everyone.

Every Flush Matters

Many everyday items flushed away can affect water quality. Contaminants from common activities like cooking, gardening, car maintenance and even medicine make their way into our water system, creating toxic environmental pollution that can harm plants and animals, not to mention us!   

7 Things You Should Never Flush Down a Toilet

1. Pharmaceutical Drugs

Years ago, many of us were told to flush unused or expired medication down the toilet for safe disposal. But disposing drugs into our sanitary water system can do more harm than good.

During the last decade, there have been growing concerns about potential adverse effects to groundwater, the environment and wildlife. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) determined that small concentrations of hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics and chemicals from personal care products have been found in various waterways nationwide.

What should we do instead? Many California communities — including Santa Clara, Monterey, Salinas and Santa Cruz counties — have joined forces to create the “Don’t Rush to Flush (Meds in the bin. We all win!)” initiative. This program provides an alternative to flushing medications down the toilet by encouraging people to bring their unused medications to local drop-off locations for proper disposal in a controlled environment.

2. Cigarette Butts

Whether you’re throwing in one butt or the entire ashtray, it’s wasteful to flush cigarette butts. Each flush uses anywhere from 1.5 to 3 gallons of water. But more importantly, cigarette butts are full of incredibly toxic chemicals that can go straight into the groundwater supply and affect our water quality. Because of their toxicity, please don’t throw them out at beaches and roads or streets either.

Cigarette filters are also not biodegradable, and when they get wet, they swell up to double or triple their original size. Swollen filters can get caught in partially clogged drains and may cause large blockages.

3. Bathroom Wipes

It’s hard to imagine the handy wet wipe causing great controversy. After all, aren’t they labeled “flushable” and don’t they appear to go down the drain the same as toilet paper?

It’s not so simple. In most cases, toilet paper disintegrates within 24 hours, keeping pipes and drains clear. But unlike toilet paper, wet wipes may take weeks or even months to completely disintegrate. As more wipes are flushed, they begin to accumulate in the drain pipes, leading to bigger and bigger clogs.

Worse yet, if the wipes exit the house and connect to the public sewer system, they can clog sewage pumps that keep wastewater flowing in the right direction. If the pumps fail, stagnant wastewater redirects back toward your house. And that means the wipes have to be removed manually.

If you use wipes, throw them in the trash can. Problem solved.

4. Paper Towels

Paper towels are paper. Well, yes. And no. Paper towels aren’t made of the same material as toilet paper. Which means they don’t break down the same way. Because paper towels are meant to absorb water without disintegrating, flushing them can cause big clogs and bigger plumbing problems.

Either throw them directly in the garbage or use reusable rags and cloths.

5. Cotton Products / Feminine Products

It’s just a cotton ball or Q-tip, right? It might seem like there would be no harm in flushing away these handy little bathroom toiletries. Like paper towels, cotton products, including tampons and other feminine hygiene items, are meant to absorb liquids — not disintegrate.

Cotton just gets soggy, expands and catches materials as it moves through pipes,eventually causing clogs that can turn into big plumbing issues. Again, if you’re using cotton simply throw them in the trash.

6. Cat Litter

Yes, cat litter is kitty waste, so it’s easy to see why we think it can go into the toilet. Yet cat litter can cause major plumbing problems because the sand and clay collects and settles in pipes. As it accumulates, it slows down water flow and eventually blocks it completely.

The other problem is that cat waste contains toxins and parasites that, like prescription medications, should not be in our water system. Cats are possible carriers of a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Flushing cat litter allows this parasite to enter the water supply.

7. Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG)

You shouldn’t flush fats, oils and grease (FOG) down the toilet for the same reason you shouldn’t pour grease down the kitchen drain. After you’ve finished your delicious bacon, the rendered fat left behind often gets flushed down your pipes and delivered to the sewers, the fats from your kitchen meet up and mix with other chemicals in the wastewater.

The result? A nasty chemical concoction or fat blob that, when it attaches onto the ceiling of pipes, creates a stalactite-type structure sometimes called a “fatberg.” Some fatbergs can become quite large — a 17-ton fatberg was found in a British sewer several years ago, requiring a team weeks to break it apart.

What should you do instead? Pour grease into an empty container, such as an old soup can, and store it in the freezer. When it solidifies, throw it in the trash. A heat-resistant bag can be used to line the can (e.g., an oven bag works well). When the grease cools, tie up the bag and throw it away.

Keep these tips in mind to help avoid damaging or clogging pipes in your home and our community sewer system.