I’ve thrown tissue paper down the pipe all my life. Everybody in my household did, and we’ve spent a good twenty years participating in this habit without any undesirable repercussions from the toilet gods.
Obviously we’ve never disposed of inhumanely large amounts of toilet paper at one time, which would be environmentally problematic and clog-inducingly uneconomical, but I used to be so bewildered as a kid, going through aisle after aisle of toilet cubicles, reading strict reprimands against flushing down paper trash. Okay, it makes perfect sense to avoid dumping sanitary pads down the pipe — they’re quite dense and bulky — but toilet paper? Shouldn’t they be harmless by design?
Then there’s the counter issue with hygiene. For the unlucky few pieces of toilet paper that happen to be soiled, traced with the remains of yesterday’s dinner (disclaimer: I live in a country that cleans up with the luxury of bum-washers, so tissues are only a means of ‘making sure’), shouldn’t they go down the drain along with our deuce? Why would you want to leave that sitting in the trash bin for hours (sometimes even days) until somebody eventually picks them up and disposes of them properly?
I’ve always thought of this as a normal habit. If anything, I thought the difference in toilet habits was a mere matter of preference. This was until a guest in my house caught a glimpse of my (apparently frowned upon) habit, and reprimanded me — saying it could clog my drain and even pose a threat to the environment?
Well naturally I brushed it off, convincing them that I’ve practically done this my entire life without any adverse effects. But it did force me to at least question our waste management system. Where does our junk go to, and what happens to them? The answers to these questions will at least shed some light on the implications of our tissue-throwing habits.
Actually, there’s no clear-cut answer to these questions, simply because different communities have different sewage management systems. On-site disposal systems utilise septic tanks — temporary waste treatment units that are usually built into every household — which then drain into semi-permeable leach or French drains. The effluent, or final waste product, is then soaked into the surrounding soil, where it is expected to naturally decompose.
Developing countries like India and Indonesia usually adopt this decentralised sewage system due to its relative simpleness compared to other more modern and advanced structures such as full sewage systems.
These systems are in a way more centralised because they connect waste from individual community centres (houses and other local buildings) into large pipes, which drain into a sizeable treatment facility called a lagoon. Here, waste is macerated and processed such that they leave the facility and back into water bodies in pristine condition. There are no leach pipe involvements in these systems, which means that waste does not seep back into the soil. Developed countries like the United States and England conform to this method.
Returning our waste back to environment may sound like its part of our ecological cycle, but this type of waste management system requires a rigorous background check before installation, as there are certain conditions that renders it unsuitable for implementation.
Areas of high rainfall and flood is a contraindication of on-site disposal systems, and so are areas with a high water table (the water surface at atmospheric pressure). It’s also more challenging to install septic systems in densely populated areas in fear of over-saturating nature’s capability to re-absorb waste, and it should also be obvious not to place leach systems near drinking water supplies.
Now here’s where our toilet paper rolls in. Toilet paper is made of paper pulp, which means they dissolve relatively quickly in water in order not to clog draining pipes or damage septic systems and centralised sewer processing machinery. They’re actually quite harmless in both sewage systems.
But that’s not all we’re throwing inside our water closets. Facial tissue is sometimes also used for toiletry purposes, and although they are fundamentally made of paper pulp, they are often laced with lotions, perfumes, and other softeners. This addition makes them nicer for wiping your face or blowing your nose, but as a result do not dissolve as rapidly in water. As you can guess, these should not be flushed down the toilet.
Other commonly flushed items that really shouldn’t be include disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, condoms, baby wipes, bandage wrappings, automotive fluids, and pet poop. Dog poop, for example, may contain parasites such as cryptosporidium, which can enter waterways and cause diarrhoea in humans.
The more advanced nature of centralised sewage treatment plants make them slightly more lenient towards extraneous waste such as toilet paper, but that’s as far as it gets. The main fear comes not from the system’s inability to disintegrate such products, but from inability of waste to reach the final treatment lagoon in the first place, clogged up somewhere within the sewerage system.
All things considered, the safest route to go is to stop throwing toilet paper down the drain altogether, designate a bin specifically for the deed (preferably pre-wrapped in some kind of eco-friendly disposable bag), and organise regular disposing schedules for them (ideally less than 48 hours lest your bin becomes a microbial playground).
If you still want to preserve your tissue-flushing habits, then at least start becoming more mindful with what exactly you’re throwing down the drain. Pay more attention to your toilet paper labels. What are they made of? Did the manufacturer incorporate softeners and perfumes? Are they septic-friendly?
I discovered that I’ve been using septic-friendly toilet rolls for the longest time, and that’s practically the only thing I dispose down the closet drain. Until they decide to stop dishing out dissolvable rolls, I think I’ll stick to flushing them down the drain.