Those living in rural areas with their own septic tanks have probably always been pretty conscientious about what they flush down the loo. If only because when something goes wrong, it’s pretty expensive to fix and you’re the sucka who’s gotta pay for it. But those of us in cities and towns whose waste just goes into the sewer system are generally pretty relaxed about what goes down the drain. Wet wipes, nappies, tampons, condoms, cooking fats and oils and coffee grounds.
I’ve always been fairly conscientious about using household cleaning products that won’t harm the water table after being poured down the drain, but lately I have become incredibly aware of other more…tangible problems in our sewers and waterways, as last September (2017) barely a couple of miles from my home there was a huge disgusting fatberg found in the sewers of Whitechapel which weighed over 130 tonnes and was over 250 metres long. (If you’re curious about seeing a chunk of the Whitechapel Fatberg, there’s a free display in the Museum of London and I’m going to check it out…I think that’s called abjection folks.)
“A fatberg smells like rotting meat mixed with the odour of a smelly toilet.” – Thames Water Sewer Network Manager, Alex Saunders
So it got me thinking about not only what we shouldn’t be putting down the drain, but what can we do to make sure that these items aren’t only not clogging up the sewers, but not impacting landfill either, nor contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. UKDN have produced a list of the Drainage Dirty Dozen – items you shouldn’t be putting down your drain – and there’s a fantastic poster you can download, print and pop into your loo or kitchen. Its particularly handy if you run a cafe, community centre or other business where you can’t personally monitor what is going down your drains. As you’ll see from the list, there are quite a lot of things you really shouldn’t be putting down the drain, but here are my top 5 swaps you can make to reduce the impact you’re having on our environment and on your local sewer system.
1. Wet Wipes
The Problem: Okay, these are the nasties which, combined with grease and fats in the sewers, are mainly responsible for the creation of fatbergs and similar deposits. As a parent, think about how many wet wipes you use with your child. Even the “flushable” ones are bad. I used disposable Water Wipes with my daughter when we were out and about, as they were chemical-free and safe for her skin. But they weren’t any better in terms of environmental impact when it came to their disposal. I’m pretty sure that I always wrapped them up inside the dirty nappy before disposing of them in the bin, but I’ll bet there were at least a couple of times when I wasn’t thinking and tossed them down the loo.
The Solution: When my daughter was a baby, we used only DIY wet wipes at home and if I knew then what I knew now about wipes, I’d have bought a small wet bag and used them on the go as well as they’re so easy. You can make them to fit any budget – if you’re on a tight budget you can make them by ripping up old flannels and following my recipe in the video below. If you have a bigger budget, these Norwex baby body cloths are great and as they’re embedded with antibacterial silver, they limit bacterial growth so you only need to run them under the tap before and after use (then throw them in a 60 degree wash when you get home).
The Problem: I have to admit it boggles my mind how on earth nappies are getting down the drain. Surely nappies are too big to flush? Nevertheless, they seem to be getting down there, so obviously someone is flushing them. The obvious answer here is…don’t flush your nappies down the loo. But the overall environmental impact of nappies is pretty harsh. Its estimated that in the UK 8 million nappies are being thrown away per day. Each one of those 8 million nappies per day takes around 500 years to degrade in landfill. I’ll let you do the math and think about the environmental consequences of that.
The Solution: One way you can minimise the risk of nappies ending up in landfill or sewers is by swapping to cloth nappy use – full or part time. By using cloth nappies you’ll also make a savings of around £500 per child. Most nurseries I’ve spoken to are really happy to use cloth nappies if you kit them out properly, so even if you’re not a stay at home parent, you can still use cloth nappies easily and benefit from their environmental and cost savings. We used AppleCheeks nappies as we found they worked best and had the best range of sizes, but there are lots of brands out there to fit all budgets and you can try out the different brands before committing to purchasing by visiting a nappy library. There are even brands out there producing hybrid cloth nappies which, while still creating some disposable waste, make travelling with cloth nappies totally possible. You can also do what we did, which is use cloth at home and in the local area, but eco-disposable brands (like Bambo and Naty) when travelling.
The Problem: We’ve all done it. (Well, those of us who use tampons, sorry boys!) We’ve all been in a public loo without a sanitary waste bin and just flushed our tampon. Its so easy to do…and they’re soooooo small. What harm can they do? Tampons are designed not to break down when they get wet (that’s how they, urm, do their job so well) and let alone worrying about the sewer, they’re probably going to clog your drain – very quickly. So even in North American and the UK, with our more robust plumbing, its still a big no no.
The Solution: Tampons are a cocktail of glyphosate, dioxin and chlorine, which is not really anything you want up your Queen Victoria. There are natural and organic brands of tampons available, but OMG when I made the swap to a menstrual cup, it was awesome! No irritation from constantly changing tampons all day, no worries about leaks and I could just go about my day without actually constantly remembering I was having my period. They’re made from medical grade silicone and so they’re easy to clean and sterilise between uses month to month. There are two sizes – size 1 for those of you who haven’t popped out babies and size 2 for ‘post childbirth’ women or women over 30. If you’re a really heavy bleeder, you can always pop on a pair of period pants which will absorb up to 1.5 tampons worth of blood (and yes, they also work). What I like about menstrual cups and period pants is that they are both better, easier and more comfortable and easier than the conventional solution. And of course cheaper. A good menstrual cup costs about $35/£19 and will last you for 10 years. (The 3rd solution is “mama cloth” which is homemade cloth sanitary pads you can get on Amazon and Etsy. Don’t bother unless you like feeling awkward, uncomfortable, a bit smelly and constantly worrying about leaks. Then go for it.)
The Problem: When we don’t finish medications (prescription or otherwise) we really don’t want them sitting around – especially if we have kids or vulnerable people in the house who could accidentally ingest them. If you flush your unused or expired medication or crush it up and pour it down the drain, those chemicals will leach back into your drinking water and the environment. Rather shockingly, the US FDA actually suggests that you SHOULD flush dangerous medications down the toilet (granted, its better than a child accidentally ingesting it) but really this is shockingly poor advice, as those drugs are going to affect the water table and even relatively safe drugs like the oral contraceptive pill will add hormones to the water which aren’t filtered out when water is prepared for consumption by treatment plants.
The Solution: The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee sensibly advises that you should always dispose of unwanted medication at your local pharmacy or police department as they will have access to medical waste disposal units. You should be aware that pharmacies are required by law to take back unwanted medicines from patients and it is their responsibility to arrange for safe disposal. For minor health conditions you may wish to look at more natural alternatives rather than pharmaceutical solutions for every small ache and pain. A great solution to ensure you’re putting your money where it needs to go when looking at natural health solutions is by reading PubMed research papers where there you can find plenty of high quality research providing evidence (or lack thereof) on natural remedies. My one caveat to this is that gold standard research is expensive and in many cases, the people with the money to spend on research (pharmaceutical and chemical companies which sponsor and fund many academic research projects), don’t necessarily wish to investigate low cost or free natural alternatives to their own products. Just because a natural alternative doesn’t have evidence supporting it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work (although it may not) – it means that the study may have been flawed (the wrong subspecies of botanical used, etc.) or that there hasn’t been any study conducted at all. Don’t worry though, there are usually plenty of natural options with good supporting gold standard evidence in their favour and this is where I would recommend someone puts their focus.
5. Grease, Oil & Cooking Fat
The Problem: Okay, so back to fatbergs. Its also not the big mega fatbergs you need to worry about – you also need to worry about smaller fatbergs forming in the sewer pipes underneath your property…which YOU are liable for (see here for details about which pipes are and aren’t your responsibility). Okay, so we don’t want local domestic fatbergs and we don’t want big urban fatbergs. But what are they? Can’t we just melt them with the hairdryer or something? Well, no, because they’re not just fat and baby wipes stuck together. Here comes the science! Fatbergs are more of a hard soap-like compound. They’re formed when the fats you pour down the drain go into the sewers and break down into their component parts of fatty acids and glycerol and bind to calcium (created from the corrosion of concrete amongst other things – or if you live in London where ISN’T calcium present?) which is found in the sewers. They then form stalactites and have to be ‘mined’ away like the Whitechapel ones have been.
The Solution: I have two solutions for you. The first is to not cook with so much fat. Do you really need to deep fry everything? Honestly despite what the popular media is saying about fat being the new broccoli or whatever, fat in its refined form (oils and other forms where it has been extracted from its whole food state) is not that good for you and is a pro-inflammatory food. I’ll admit that yes a bit of olive oil makes food taste lovely, but if you’re using more than a couple of teaspoons which are absorbed into the food you’re cooking then maybe you need to give pause for thought. But if you insist on making grandma’s deep fried apple fritter recipe and have a load of leftover oil or you’ve cooked a Sunday roast and there’s leftover ooky fat at the base of your roasting tray, you’re going to have to dispose of it in your household garbage and not by pouring it down the sink…or (like I see some London housewives doing) by taking it outside into the street and pouring it straight down into the storm drains!
This post is a collaboration with UKDN, the UK’s market leader in the wastewater industry.