Don’t flush that! Baby wipes and other products cause backups

Putting anything in your toilet that does not break down quickly can cause plumbing and septic backups and result in costly repairs.

Common sign seen in the restroom of public buildings | Photo by Beth Clawson, MSU Extension

Common sign seen in the restroom of public buildings | Photo by Beth Clawson, MSU Extension

It is no secret that tossing foreign objects into your toilet or sink drains will plug them up. But did you also know that they plug up your municipal wastewater treatment facilities and home onsite wastewater systems as well? Across the nation, sanitation districts have been investing in public awareness efforts to educate the public about flushing the wrong stuff. Toilets should only be flushing body wastes and toilet paper because all other items plug the plumbing and fill up septic tanks. 

Items such as facial tissue, paper towel, sanitary wipes (including baby wipes), feminine hygiene products, food stuffs, hair, dental floss, adhesive bandages and the like, do not break down. Municipal sewer systems have to filter and strain these products out. Septic tanks just fill up faster as most of these products don’t break down during the anaerobic digestion process leading to system failures.

According to research from the Portland Maine water district pipe clogs were caused by solid paper products (40 percent), baby wipes (18 percent), other sanitary wipes (12 percent), feminine hygiene products (18 percent) and household wipes, medical materials and cosmetic products (7 percent). Even if the product says that it is safe for sewers and septic that does not mean will break up and decompose.

Other things you should not put in your plumbing or toilets include:

  • Chemicals - They should be sent to your household hazardous waste collection because they are bad for the environment.
  • Paints – They can stop bacterial action in septic tanks.
  • Medications – They often contain antibiotics which, in turn, stops the bacterial action in septic tanks.
  • Cat litter – It contains clay and sand causing blockages.
  • Cotton balls and cotton swabs – They swell with moisture causing blockages and do not break down.
  • Dental floss, hair and other stringy items - They catch on stuff and cause blockages.

Screening and cleaning wastewater before it can be treated and discharged costs thousands of dollars annually. By only flushing what is supposed to be flushed, body waste and toilet paper, you are saving time and money. Avoiding clogs and septic fill ups extend the life of these ever so important infrastructure installations for many years to come.

If you are a private homeowner with an onsite wastewater treatment (septic tank) you should have it serviced and pumped every three to five years depending on your specific situation. Avoid adding cleaners and antibacterial products that can disrupt the delicate ecosystem that is in your anaerobic wastewater treatment system. Additionally, you should avoid adding excessive water to your system by spreading your laundry wash over the week. Avoid operating dishwashers and washing machines at the same time.

For more information on good septic system maintenance, read the Michigan State University Extension septic article series:

To learn more about onsite waste water systems and water quality, contact Michigan State University Extension Natural Resources educators who are working across Michigan to provide aquatic invasive species educational programming and assistance. You can contact an educator through MSU Extension’s Find an Expert search tool using the keywords “Natural Resources Water Quality”.

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