What not to flush? Toilet paper alternatives can clog home, city systems

Posted 3/23/20

With an ever-dwindling supply of toilet paper, some have turned to facial tissue, paper towels and flushable wipes — but municipal officials warn flushing those products can cause problems at home and in the sewer downstream.

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What not to flush? Toilet paper alternatives can clog home, city systems


One crisis inevitably leads to another; such is the case where scarcity has led some area homeowners to reach for products, which can clog up the works.

With exponentially growing concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak, locals face shortages, while hoarders strip grocery stores bare of essential products — most notably, toilet paper.

And with an ever-dwindling supply of those pillowy, two-ply rolls, some turn to TP alternatives, such as facial tissue, paper towels and flushable wipes — but municipal officials warn flushing some paper products can cause problems at home and in the sewer downstream.

Jayson Cheshire, wastewater operations supervisor at the city of Surprise South Water Reclamation Facility, explained the difference between toilet paper and other paper products, which aren’t made for flushing.

“Facial tissue — just like any other paper product, like paper towels or napkins — they’re designed to hold up better with moisture,” Mr. Cheshire said. “A paper towel isn’t much good if you go to wipe up a spill and it just falls apart. They’re designed to hold up better, so they will start to clog up the pipes.”

The American Forest & Paper Association describes toilet paper at their website, www.afandpa.org.

“Based on the desire for better public hygiene, toilet tissue evolved along with the advent of indoor plumbing … Designed to be sewer and septic safe, toilet tissue is an essential product of everyday life, providing sanitation, comfort and convenience with each use,” the association states.

And even some products, which claim to be toilet-safe, are not, according to a recent report at the Popular Mechanics website, popularmechanics.com.

“At least I’m safe flushing flushable wipes … right? You’d think so. But contrary to what their packaging says, flushable wipes are not, in fact, flushable. They’re often made with rayon, viscose, or other plastics, which aren’t biodegradable.”

Mr. Cheshire explained why home plumbing can easily clog when people flush anything but real toilet paper.

“We are a gravity-fed system mostly. Anything that might clog up our pipes would also do the same for a household as well.” Beyond the hassle of clogged-up home commodes, alternative paper products can inundate and even break city-owned wastewater treatment systems, he said.

“It would cause issues in our collections system and the increased amounts that aren’t dissolving in the system like toilet paper should, if it does manage to work its way into the collections system, will then eventually get into the systems that we have here on site at the plant that removes those types of products,” Mr. Cheshire said. “The increased amount of loading from that stuff would also cause us problems. Eventually, if it works past certain screening areas, we have to remove those products and it could then get into things like pumps and start causing issues there, as well.”

Broken city systems then create costs, which may be paid by residents, he said.

“We would definitely try to repair. But repair and replacement of equipment that would normally function just fine, because of the increased loading from undissolved paper products, could certainly increase our operating costs, which could eventually be passed on to the taxpayer,” Mr. Cheshire said.

He suggested anyone without toilet paper should do what they need to get by — but they should throw those other products in the garbage instead.

“We don’t disagree with using these other paper products as an alternative. We just ask that they don’t get flushed down the toilet,” Mr. Cheshire said. “Those other products should be thrown away in solid-waste trash. They are designed to be thrown away, not flushed.”

For people who ignore the warnings, the cost of repairs may be more immediate, since sewer lines leading from households are the responsibility of homeowners, not the city, explained Reynaldo Aldava, wastewater manager for the city of Surprise.

“If they do throw down paper products that aren’t toilet paper and it does clog up in their lateral line, which is the line between the house and our main sewer, the homeowner is responsible for that,” Mr. Aldava said.