National Toilet Paper Day was celebrated on August 26, and we should all take a moment to be grateful for how the pleasant rolls of soft TP make life a little better. When my mom was growing up in a rural part of Texas in the 1950s, her house had no indoor plumbing and their toilet was a piece of wood with a hole cut in it in an outhouse. Even though toilet paper had been available commercially in the U.S. since 1857, my mother’s family used the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues instead of toilet paper. My very frugal grandparents finally decided to splurge on toilet paper after a friend who was visiting used the outhouse and then told my Grandma, “You know, you can buy toilet paper now, and it’s a lot better than those slick catalogue pages!”
While my parents deprived us of indoor plumbing several times while I was growing up (my dad built some of our houses and we would move in before they were finished), thankfully we always had a supply of toilet paper. Safe for sewers and septic systems, there really is no substitute for toilet paper! It is the only thing other than human waste that should be flushed.
Toilet paper is made to break up quickly in water, which is why it is safe to flush. Any product other than toilet paper can contribute to pump clogs and other problems in sewer systems and at wastewater treatment facilities. Here’s a fun experiment to try at home, or a good science fair project for kids: put toilet paper in a glass of water, and put other products that you might think are okay to be flushed in other glasses of water. Then stir the glasses and see what happens, similar to the demonstration shown in this video by the City of Spokane Department of Wastewater Management. Toilet paper breaks down easily, while other products do not. Be sure to try a facial tissue – even though it feels similar to toilet paper, it is designed to stay strong when you blow your nose into it, and it will not break down easily in water.
Most of the “flushable” wipes that have gained popularity in the last five years are not actually safe for sewer and septic systems. Although wipes technology continues to improve and we have seen some prototype products that break up as well as toilet paper, it will likely be a long time before consumers can trust that a wipe that calls itself “flushable” is really safe to flush. It’s okay to use wipes, just put them in the trash can rather than the toilet! Or run your own test of your wipe at home: soak a wipe in a glass of water for 60 minutes. If you can lift it out of the glass after 60 minutes, don’t flush it! If, like toilet paper, you can’t lift it out, then it is likely safe to flush. (A few utilities have conducted experiments with wipes and had some “flushable” wipes sitting in water for months, and the wipes are still completely intact.)
However, if you’re like most people and don’t want to think too much about what you are flushing, just remember to only flush the 3 Ps: pee, poop, and toilet paper. Toilets are not trash cans! Let’s honor toilet paper on National Toilet Paper Day and every other day by letting it flush and go into the sewer system with only the other Ps.