What NOT to flush
No matter what it says on the packaging, most of our personal healthcare and beauty products must never be disposed of down the toilet. Many of these products don’t break down like toilet paper does. Instead they collect in our sewers to form blockages. The results are often costly maintenance, repairs, flooding and environmental pollution. However, there are tests to determine whether or not a product is truly ‘flushable’.
Which products should not be flushed?
Manufacturers are developing ever more innovative brands of toilet paper, biodegradable sanitary towels and wipes. These are frequently disposed of down the toilet and into the sewerage system, and once they are flushed, it's easy to forget about them.
Water companies have practical concerns about the suitability of disposing of many of so-called 'flushable products' into public and private drainage and sewerage networks. Most products should be treated as municipal solid waste, which goes in the bin, and not as flushable waste.
Domestic drainage pipes are typically 10cm (4") in diameter and are simply not designed to carry this type of waste, so they can easily become blocked. The main sewers also suffer blockages as waste builds up under ground.
Smaller items that are flushed, such as cotton buds, can escape through wastewater filters at the treatment plant and reach our rivers and beaches when the 'cleaned' water is returned to the environment.
Many other unsuitable and dangerous items also enter the sewers down the toilet – razor blades, healthcare waste and medicines are all incorrectly disposed of into the sewerage system.
If unsuitable products are flushed, what happens next?
Items marketed as 'flushable' or 'biodegradable' may disappear when you flush but they do not break down in the sewers - and can take years to disintegrate. More than half (55%) of sewer flooding is due to blockages in sewers.
Some products may be labelled as 'flushable' by the manufacturer, yet this label is no guarantee that the item can be flushed into the drainage system without causing problems.
Such products cause or contribute to blockages in drains and smaller sewers, bringing flooding and pollution. They may also be discharged into the environment via storm overflows at times of very heavy rainfall.
At the sewage treatment works they add to the volume of solid matter which has to be carefully removed for landfill. Even dental floss is unsuitable for flushing - it can collect in filters during the treatment process and cause machinery to break down.
And the result for customers?
In the Thames region alone, disposal of unsuitable products, combined with fats, oils, grease and food waste poured down the sink, causes 1,000 homes and 5,000 gardens to be flooded each year. The national cost of unblocking the sewers maintained by the water and sewerage companies already runs to £15m a year.
Waste in its proper place
Find out where the different types of waste should go
The flushability test
There is a voluntary test that sanitary manufacturers can use to establish whether their product is truly flushable. It is called the SNAP protocol and it can determine whether or not an individual sanitary or hygiene product is suitable for foul drain and sewer disposal via the toilet.
The water industry does not accept that a product is flushable unless it is compliant with the tests described within the SNAP protocol. The industry seeks to work with manufacturers to further develop this voluntary code. The overall aim is to reduce the burden of sewer blockages and associated costs, to protect homes and the environment from used personal products and sewage waste, and to ensure that all waste is dealt with in its proper place.