Why is flushing sanitary products down the toilet bad for our sewers and oceans?

Underneath our feet, a war is being waged between our ailing Victorian-era sewers and a torrent of sanitary products clogging up our pipes, drains and water courseways. Despite the valiant effort of foot soldiers, like our drainage engineers who tackled the ‘monster’ Whitechapel fatberg in 2017, sanitary products pose a significant threat to sanitation systems in the UK and all over the world.

In this blog post, we’ll explore why sanitary products are so troublesome, why they plague our sewers and oceans, and the steps we can take as a society to stop them from damaging our sewers.

Struggling sewers

Our sewers and drainage systems are under more pressure than ever, despite the significant investment into them year on year. With an ever-increasing population, more and more waste is being sent into our sewers – and right now, according to research by the Marine Conservation Society, between 1.5 billion and 2 billion of sanitary items are flushed down the loo annually. When sanitary items make their way into our sewers, they cause blockages on a scale that sometimes needs to be seen to be believed.

Fatbergs, like the ones we’ve helped to excavate in Whitechapel and countless other locations in the UK, are a direct result of sanitary items – and other non-biodegradable products – combining with fats, oils and grease (FOG) that are tipped down our sinks and drains. Besides being unsightly, fatbergs can cause big problems underground. The Whitechapel fatberg blocked approximately 90% of the sewer, where the congealed fatberg was at its biggest. This has a significant impact on our sewers’ ability to transport wastewater from one location to another, and can cause problems such as:

  • Sewer blockages

  • Structural damage to sewers and drains

  • Sewage floods and pollution events

  • Extensive local flooding during heavy rain – disruption to travel and businesses

  • Health risks from sewage spills

  • Pollution damage to natural water courses

  • Environmental/wildlife risks as a result of plastics found in wipes and other products in fatbergs

Why don’t sanitary products break down?

Unlike loo roll, tampons, nappies, sanitary pads and similar items, are designed to absorb large volumes of moisture. As such, when they end up in our sewers, instead of breaking down, they expand, and absorb lots of sewage water getting caught up in FOG, causing ever bigger blockages.

But why do sanitary items – tampons in particular – absorb so much moisture and block our sewers? Tampons, items used to absorb the menstrual-flow, are typically made of cotton, rayon, plastic and a whole host of other additives that vary depending on the manufacturer of the sanitary product. They’re specifically designed to be super-absorbent and then to be disposed of immediately after use.

But it is the plastic part of tampons and sanitary pads – woven into the fabric – that cause some of the biggest problems for our sewers and ecosystem as a whole. In a story published by the I, a source estimates that sanitary products produce over 100 billion pieces of waste every single year – and more than 80 per cent of single-use sanitary products contain non-biodegradable synthetic materials and plastics.

The plastic problem

Plastic is a troublesome substance and its pollution is one the biggest challenges we face as a species. Blue Planet II, the BBC documentary series fronted by veteran presenter David Attenborough, brought the subject into national focus. Illustrating how extensive our plastic problem is, research from Women’s Environmental Network shows that for every one kilometre of UK beach, there are approximately nine plastic tampon applicators to be found.

Besides being unsightly, sanitary items, microbeads and other plastics escaping our sewers and being discharged through outlets into our oceans is a serious environmental issue.

This video shows the alarming moment when scientists captured plastic being ingested by phytoplankton, an organism at the very bottom of the food chain that is a food source for countless species of marine animals all over the planet. The video shows the plastic blocking the creature’s stomach, preventing it from eating any food, which ultimately leads to death of the organism and denying other creatures a potential source of food.

It raises the question: If plastic is being ingested by sea life at the microscopic level, does that mean larger sea life are eating plastic too? And if larger marine life like fish are consuming plastic, does that mean we are too? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Scientists have estimated that we could be eating up to 11,000 microscopic pieces of plastic every single year from all of your favourite sea food including fish, mussels and squid. Researchers still don’t know how ingesting plastic is going to impact human health in the long-term, but if the blocked stomach of the phytoplankton is anything to go by, the consequences could be severe.

How to save our sewers and oceans

Knowledge is the key to saving our sewers and the planet. According to a survey we recently carried out, 39% of women have flushed a sanitary product down the toilet at least once. Everyone who responded to the survey was 15 or over. Let’s imagine that 39% of our respondents account for the whole population – that’s the equivalent of more than 20 million women who have contributed to the problem, often without knowing the effect it can have on our sewers and the environment.

It is age-old advice, but remember that only the three P’s – paper, pee and poo – should be flushed down the toilet.

When you’re getting rid of a tampon, panty liner, wet wipe, condom or anything else that isn’t one of the three P’s for that matter, remember ‘Bin it, don’t flush it.’ It is imperative that people follow this advice, as changing sanitary item disposal habits is what will stop these products from getting caught in our sewers, and ultimately, stop them from ending up in our seas.

Certain plastics are non-recyclable, and there are elements of sanitary items that don’t biodegrade. If you’re concerned about this, and want to ensure you minimise your impact on the environment, there are plenty of alternatives available with organic sanitary items – products made without plastic – becoming very popular with women all over the world. We’ve put together a list of these below:

It’s a similar story with wet wipes. Biodegradable alternatives are widely available in supermarkets and online retailers across the world. Even organic condoms have started to appear on our shelves, eliminating this form of plastic waste.

Help us spread the word

The plastics problem is now front-page news, and is a seriously hot topic of discussion among the public nowadays.

We need to tell the world that plastics are not all plastic bottles, plastic bags, drinking straws and the items you would typically associate with the word ‘plastic’. We also need to raise awareness of the damage sanitary products inflict on our sewers.

Can you help us spread the word?

By sharing the image below on social media, with any of the hashtags that follow, you can help us create a nation of binners, not sinners.

Flushing tampons causes problems for the environment and our sewer system

Be a binner, not a sinner.


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