The garbage we're flushing down the toilet

When it comes to sorting our rubbish into different bins, it looks as if most Australians know what they’re doing. But every day, tonnes of rubbish makes its way into our sewage treatment plants – after being flushed down the toilet. And it’s having a devastating effect on our environment.

Australians are increasingly using their loos as a bin and it’s causing havoc throughout the wastewater network. Toilets and wastewater systems are built to take away the three Ps – pee, poo and paper.

“That’s what they are designed for and do well,” says Adam Lovell, executive director of the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA).

“They take away the waste, it’s treated really well, to really good standards, and it’s returned back to the environment without too many hassles.”

Read: Can I flush pet poo down the toilet?

Flushing anything else risks the creation of ‘fatbergs’, or blockages in the sewer that can cause raw untreated wastewater to spill out into creeks and other natural waterways.

Items found in the nation’s wastewater plants include wet wipes, ear buds, plastic, dental floss, cigarette butts, tampons, toothbrushes, condoms and even underpants.

A lot of medication is flushed down the loo as well. Everything from antibiotics and pain killers to hormones and cholesterol drugs.

Mr Lovell says ‘flushable’ wet wipes in particular are a major cause of blockages in the sewage system. He says that although they may technically be flushed down the toilet, they don’t break down and are the catalyst for fatbergs to begin accumulating.

Yarra Valley Water (YVW), the major supplier for the Melbourne metro area, pulls more than four tonnes of wet wipes from the sewage network each fortnight and around 100 tonnes annually.

Read: Simple steps to save water

“While some of these products claim to be flushable, they may not be and customers should be mindful of what is flushed down the toilet,” YVW says.

Apart from wrecking critical infrastructure in our cities, what we flush can have wide-ranging effects on the environment.

Everything that vanishes down domestic toilets, sinks and drains ends up mixed together. This foul mixture then makes its way down the pipe network to a wastewater treatment plant. Large screens then filter out rubbish that shouldn’t be there.

The water is treated to a high level and discharged into natural waterways to eventually flow back to the ocean. Pouring oils or chemicals down the drain or toilet means those contaminants will eventually make their way back into the natural environment.

Mr Lowell says he hopes municipal water systems of the future will focus on reusing the treated water, rather than just releasing it.

Read: How the water and sewage under your feet could flood your home

“The past was that linear system – catch the water in a dam, send it to a drinking water treatment plant, it goes to a tap and is used in the home, then it’s back into the sewage system, a wastewater treatment plant and a river or the ocean,” he says.

“You want to keep anything unnecessary out of the wastewater stream because we want to reuse that water for the best available purposes.

“We want to use the carbon that’s in there, we want to capture the nitrogen and the phosphorous, we want to capture the heat, potentially, and reuse it.”

Are you guilty of flushing things you shouldn’t? Do you think you might change your behaviour now? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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