Careful what you flush, or you end up with a 300-ton fatberg!

Remember to only put the three Ps down the toilet: pee, poo, and paper, says Trevor Laffan - it’s not rocket science.
Careful what you flush, or you end up with a 300-ton fatberg!

MESSAGE: Amy Poland and Julie Hassett, who won a UCC Think Before You Flush Video Competition in 2018 operated by An Taisce

WE were having a bathroom renovation carried out in the house during Storm Barra. Not great timing, but it was pre-planned, so we had to go with it.

The toilet was removed and when the plumber was finishing up for the day, he put a plastic bag into the opening of the sewer pipe to prevent the smell coming into the room. But when I looked in later, the plastic bag had popped out.

The storm was raging at the time and the draught was coming in around the pipe, so I popped the bag back in and put a toolbox against it to prevent it popping out again.

I checked it on my way to bed and I was surprised to find the bag had disappeared. There was only one place it could have gone and that was down the pipe into the sewage system.

That might not bother some people, but I was horrified, and I’ll tell you why.

World Toilet Day has been around for the last 20 years, since November, 2001 in fact. It’s organised by the United Nations to encourage us to appreciate our toilets for the work they do, because 3.6 billion people don’t have one.

It’s hard to believe that nearly half the world’s population live without a basic toilet, but it’s true.

The UN website tells us to care for them because life without one is dirty, dangerous, and undignified. But not only do we take sanitation for granted, we abuse it too.

A 2019 survey by An Taisce found that 58% of the public pour fats, oils, and grease down the sink, and one in four Irish adults knowingly flushes items down the toilet that can cause blockages.

According to Irish Water, when fats, oils and grease are hot and in liquid form, they pour easily down the sink and drain, but when they cool, they form solid masses, commonly referred to as fatbergs.

People under the age of 35 were found to be the most likely culprits, and the most common items being flushed down the toilet include hair, paper towels, toilet wipes, dental floss, tampons, baby wipes, cotton buds, and cigarette butts; stuff that should be put in the bin.

Wet wipes, or baby wipes, are very handy around the house, but cause a lot of trouble when flushed down the loo, and that has led some local authorities to call for them to be banned altogether. That would be a shame because they have their uses.

Wipes are ideal for a quick clean of dirty surfaces, but useful for a dirty body too. Back when we were delivering aid to Belarus in the aftermath of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, baby wipes were an essential piece of our kit. Parts of that country are very poor so there were times when we mightn’t see a shower for days on end, and on those occasions, the wet wipes were a life-saver.

Emptying an articulated trailer by hand was dirty work and would leave you covered in sweat, grime, dust, and other nasty stuff. In the absence of proper washing facilities, wipes were our magic bullet.

If you’ve never stripped off in one of these trailers and scrubbed yourself with wipes, you haven’t lived. A good rub down would leave you feeling good enough to mix with royalty.

They can be a menace though when not disposed of properly because they don’t disintegrate or dissolve. They become indestructible wraps of gunk and I’ve had first-hand experience of that.

I lived for 25 years in a bungalow that was serviced by a septic tank. That’s a concrete container buried in the garden, where all the waste from the toilet ends up.

The liquid drains out of the septic tank through a pipe into a soakaway, while the solid waste remains in the tank and is taken care of by bacteria. It’s a highly effective system, but it breaks down when foreign bodies are added.

Once the system clogs up, the only solution is to remove the cover from the tank and free the blockage manually using sewer rods and a garden hose. Apart from the visual appearance of a tank full of crap, there is also the smell and the fumes to contend with. Not the most pleasant job, and the toxic environment is almost guaranteed to give you a headache.

We rented out the house for a few years and some of the tenants had no understanding of the workings of a septic tank and treated the toilet like a waste disposal unit.

Sometimes, when I went to clear it, it looked as if a bunch of otters had been trying to build a dam in there. Not a job I ever looked forward to, but it was very educational. If everyone had that experience, discarded wet wipes would never again see the inside of a toilet bowl.

Clearing a blockage in a domestic tank is one thing, but it’s nothing compared to what the local authorities have to contend with at their pumping stations.

Earlier this year, the BBC reported that a 300-ton fatberg was found in a city in England. That giant turd was said to be half a mile long, three feet in height, and weighed the equivalent of 250 family cars. It took weeks to clear it.

We could do without that happening here, but it was reported in the Irish Examiner last year that the past decade has seen the problem exacerbated in Cork by people abusing the sanitation system.

That’s not good news, and it’s why I felt so guilty about my plastic bag the other day.

We can all help by remembering to only put the three Ps down the toilet: pee, poo, and paper. It’s not rocket science.

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