Don’t flush that!

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

Guest post by Michigan State University Extension natural resources and water quality educator, Beth Clawson

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 (septic) 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 waste and toilet paper because all other items plug the plumbing and fill up septic tanks faster.

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

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 must filter and strain these products out prior to processing wastewater, increasing the cost of this public service. Septic tanks just fill up faster, as most of these products don’t break down during the anaerobic digestion process. This leads to filling and drain field system failures.

According to research from the Portland, Maine water district, pipe clogs were caused by solid blockages. When they were sorted, the percentages were surprising:

  • paper products (40 percent)
  • baby wipes (18 percent)
  • other sanitary wipes (12 percent)
  • feminine hygiene products (18 percent)
  • household wipes, medical materials and cosmetic products (7 percent).

Even if the product label says that it is “safe to flush” and that it will not harm septic tanks, often such products fail to break up and decompose quickly enough to avoid clogs and failures.

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

  • Chemicals – They should be sent to your household hazardous waste collectors because they are bad for the environment.
  • Paints – They can stop bacterial action in septic tanks.
  • Medications – They often contain antibiotics which, in turn, stop 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 other materials present creating 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 can 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.

To learn more about onsite wastewater 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 Ask an Expert tool.

This article was originally published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit

One comment on “Don’t flush that!

  1. Gary Street on

    I am surprised to see paper towels on the list. Yes, they don’t break down as fast as toilet paper, but they do break down.

    The alternative is to put them in the waste-basket, where they ultimately end up in a land fill. In a typical land fill, they may take several years to breakdown.

    It’s a poor trade-off.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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