As many of you will know, over the past few months we have been challenging the way many companies label their products as “flushable” by running a nationwide experiment. Basically the idea behind this is to get as many people to perform a very simple experiment which shows whether a wipe or a liner labelled as flushable is actually safe to flush down the toilet. Want to get involved and have a try at this experiment with some of the wipes and liners in your home? Follow the instructions here!
Long introduction, but it was needed to introduce you to our 36th chat with Emma McColm from LOVEmyBEACH. She, like us, is concerned with the things that shouldn’t be flushed down the toilets because in many cases unfortunately these unflushables end up on our beaches, polluting both us and the wildlife. Have a read of the chat below to find out more about her great project, what you can do to help our beaches and what you should definitely never, ever, ever, flush down your toilet.
Emma: I run a public awareness campaign called LOVEmyBEACH and work with a water company to promote messages like only flush the 3P’s! Who knows what they are?
@Emma: Are the 3Ps poo, pee, period?
@Emma: Ah Emma, you’ve come to the right group, we know all about the 3 Ps. Poo Pee Paper! But good point, period is also one…
Emma: Yeah, top of the class! Period is another P which I’d not thought of, but sanitary products unfortunately are still being flushed and sometimes end up on our beaches when we do beach cleans, ugh.
Q: do you find flushable wipes end up on the beaches too?
Emma: Yes ‘flushable’ wipes cause lots of problems for drains and do end up on the beach. Yorkshire Water report that 1/3 of their blockages are from wipes: toilet, baby, facial etc…
Q: do you know why toilet paper breaks down, but wipes and nappy liners don’t?
Emma: I’m not a paper expert but I’d imagine it’s the weave and strength of the wipes that take longer to break up.
@Emma: Yes, a lady I spoke to from United Utilities said that non-flush products are cross woven and ‘flushable’ products are only woven one way, so that’s the theory behind them breaking down quicker.
Q: Are there any brands of “flushable” liners that truly are flushable? I have used them for about 6 months when my kid started solids because they cut down mess and smell significantly!
Emma: I’m not convinced that any item that says they are flushable are actually flushable. I’ve watched Kimberly Clark videos and I’m still not convinced.
Q: How do wipes end up in the sea? Is it sewage pipes overflowing? Because surely untreated sewage isn’t being pumped into the sea?
Emma: Water companies are allowed to use storm overflows like a relief valve and discharge sewage during storms to prevent it from backing up into our homes.
@Emma: So that’s before sewage reaches the treatment plant? Is that the only way stuff ends up on beaches?
Emma: Yes, storm tanks hold the untreated sewage water and if they reach their capacity they are released into the sea – regulated heavily especially near designated bathing waters (where people swim). Signs on the beaches tell you if it’s safe to swim and the water quality. Any sewage outfalls are monitored, but check signs for water quality before paddling. The Environment agency also has a widget so you can check their maps if you are a sea swimmer.
Q: We have been testing if things are flushable by shaking them in a Tupperware container of water for 3 mins. Would you agree that anything that’s still in one piece after that is NOT safe to flush?
Emma: Yes, our household pipes aren’t very big and our sewers are often Victorian. Imagine if waste pipes are clogged with fat too, decreasing their efficiency….
@Emma: So if anything that lasts 3 minutes shaking is not safe to flush, then every ‘flushable’ thing we’ve tested is not flushable. I think it’s terrible that they can label things flushable that aren’t!
Q: How are companies getting away with it?! Is there a legal definition of ‘flushable’?
Emma: The Collins definition of flushable is “able or intended to be flushed”.
@Emma: It should go further than that, though. A lot of the disposable nappy liners that are advertised to us as “flushable” say they are biodegradable. To me, that would mean it breaks down in the water after a while, but it doesn’t seem they do.
Emma: Yes, maybe the time factor of bio-degradable should be added. Think of bananas, they can take up to 2 years to biodegrade! I’m always telling people out walking to take them home!
Q: Is it better to plop the poo from a disposable nappy into the loo when possible rather than putting the lot into the bin?
Emma: The LOVEmyBEACH campaign says you should only flush the 3 P’s: poo , pee and paper. So yes poo is meant for the loo since poo eventually becomes liquid, meaning it is fine to flush (I’m not a scientist, can you tell?). Poo and toilet paper breaks down in the system but everything else I’d recommend binning so that you don’t get any nasty smells or plumbing bills.
Q: Surely people who market things as flushable are in breach of the advertising code. Has anyone ever put a complaint in to the ASA?
Emma: Good question.
@Emma: I think we’d be up for putting some complaints in! But we want to be sure the three minute shaking test is valid. Sorry for the question, but does poo definitely break up in 3 mins shaking? (None of us are brave enough to try it!)
Emma: Sorry I’ve not tried with poo either but as it’s natural, it must do.
@Emma: can you clarify the bit about poo breaking down because it’s natural? Is there an assumption that natural materials will break down? 3 minutes doesn’t seem long enough for a plant or most animal materials to break down?
Emma: Yes natural things like sick and poo breakdown, although some poo is more potent than others! Dog, sheep and bird poo is sometimes found in the samples that are taken on the beach during the bathing water season. This is more potent than human poo.
@Emma: So human poo will pass the three minute shaking test then?
Emma: I’d hope it takes less than 3 minutes, otherwise our flushes would have to be longer.
Q: I grew up very far inland in the west Midlands. Can the same thing happen there? Do they have emergency discharge into rivers? Or is it close enough to the sea still?
Emma: Discharges go into rivers too so yes, even though people don’t live by the sea we can all help mitigate what ends up in the watercourses and reduce unsightly litter.
Q: I used to live inland and Thames Water made a big deal about the water going back into the river being so clean. So presumably they’re cleaning anything else like wipes out of it first. Should there be something people inland should be worried about?
Emma: Water companies use screening on their outfall pipes, but things like cotton buds still get through and are tricky to pick up with litter pickers. People think they are lollipop sticks.
@Emma: Are Thames Water over-selling how clean their water going into the river is?
Emma: I can’t comment on Thames Water, sorry. All water companies invest a huge amount into their infrastructure and in the last 20 years there have been dramatic improvements in water quality. However rivers are given classifications so speak to your local rivers trusts as they’ll know if the water company are exaggerating their claims. If there were no non-flushable being flushed maybe we’d be charged less?
Q: Are misconnections another reason things end up in the sea/waterways that shouldn’t?
Emma: Misconnections are when our domestic pipes aren’t connected correctly. Showers, toilets and baths should be connected to foul sewer and not surface water drains. Visit www.connectright.org to check. Misconnections are one of the causes of water pollution, agricultural run off, industry, water companies, drainage from cities etc. If you visit our website there is lots of info and actions you can take from home or your workplace!
Q: I know the answer may be sad to hear, but can you quickly explain how flushing unflushables affects the sea/sea animals?
Emma: they ingest them and can get tangled up in them ;-(
Emma: Bye everyone thanks for talking poo with me!
@Emma: Thanks so much for coming Emma!
Emma: My pleasure, off to find some poo emojis now!