No one likes mopping up the overflow caused by a clogged toilet, and the prospect of a big bill from a plumber is one of the least exciting things about being an adult. If you own a home, you’ll eventually suffer both of these cruel fates, but you can stave them off for a big longer by being more careful about what you put into the toilet (aside from the obvious).
Never flush wipes or facial tissue
We’ve written before about the fact that so-marketed “flushable wipes” are really only considered flushable by the companies making them. Anyone with expertise in maintaining plumbing and sewer lines will advise you that the wipes, which don’t break down in sewer lines as easily as regular toilet paper, are actually a leading cause of drain blockages that can cause headaches for homeowners and municipalities alike—costing the latter as much as $1 billion in repair costs every year. Instead, keep a small trash can with a lid next to the toilet, and empty it often.
Wipes aren’t the only seemingly flushable thing you really shouldn’t flush. For similar reasons, you shouldn’t flush paper towels or facial tissue either, as both are designed to actually stand up to moisture without falling apart, making them too durable for your sewer pipes. What other counterintuitive items should you toss into the trash instead?
Seemingly flushable stuff you shouldn’t send down the toilet
Food. Given that human waste is made up of former food, it doesn’t seem like it should be that big a deal to flush those leftovers that went bad in the fridge. (I do this a lot. We’re bad at eating leftovers.) It’s probably a practice best avoided—by virtue of being already digested, poop is a lot softer and more malleable than, say, a hunk of moldy lasagna. According to Doherty Plumbing of Virginia, uneaten food can be too large for pipes, cause blockages, and even absorb water, which will make the problem worse.
Hair. The toilet seems like a good spot to toss that nest of hair you just pulled off your hairbrush, but it’s not—for basically the same reasons long strings of hair are bad news for sink and shower drains. The hair seems to go down all at once, but it can still catch in your pipes and start to form a blockage. (Aside from the fact that it’s often made of plastic, this is also why you shouldn’t flush dental floss.)
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Cotton balls and swabs (related: tampons and pads). Cotton balls seem soft and squishy enough to slide right through pipes, but like hair and dental floss, they don’t break down in water and can easily snag on something and start a clog forming. This is also why you shouldn’t flush feminine hygiene products like tampons and pads, which are made up of super-absorbent, drain-blocking fibers.
Sand (including kitty litter). A day at the shore can leave you feeling like you brought half of the beach back home with you, but you should do your best to keep sand out of your pipes—both your shower drain and your toilet. Sand is heavier than water and will settle in every dip and low point in your pipes, at which point it will be very difficult to flush out without some serious effort. The same goes for your cat’s kitty litter, some of which is expressly designed to clump up when wet.
Gum. We’ve also written about this one before, but it’s worth reiterating: It’s a myth that gum stays in your body for years if you swallow it, but that doesn’t mean you should, because it will just come out in your poop—and it really shouldn’t be flushed. Gum never breaks down, in a sewer pipe or otherwise (as How Stuff Works put it, “once gum is made, it is gum forever”). That not only means gum can contribute to clogs as well as any other impermeable substance—but it can also make its way into waterways, contributing to the planet’s massive microplastics problem.
Cooking grease and oil. Though oil and grease can keep a car engine running smoothly, they do the opposite for your pipes, solidifying, settling in any dips, and attracting bits of anything else that floats by. (There’s a reason those huge sewer clogs are nicknamed “fatbergs.”) Besides, cooking grease is far too valuable to flush.
Medicine. And another reminder for good measure: For the most part, your old meds belong in the trash, not the toilet. Though the FDA does provide a list of drugs that are OK to send down the drain, anything not on the list should be disposed of safely via other means.