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The Problem With Hidden Plastic
Plastic in drainage is a hot topic at the moment – with the enormous London ‘fatberg’ in 2017 bringing to light the problem in the UK, and in fact the global issue, of improper waste disposal. A ‘fatberg’ is a mass which is built up of fat, grease and other materials such as plastic based wipes, that, due to the fact that they can’t be biologically broken down,’ collect in drains until huge masses form, obstructing the natural flow of the drains.
According to the National Academy of Science in 1975, over 450,000 tonnes of plastic were making their way into the ocean every year, and it has been estimated that by 2050, on a weight to weight basis, that plastic products could outweigh the amount of fish in the ocean.
Whilst many of us are aware of the problem, what we don’t realise is that we are directly contributing to the issue through our own household waste disposal – and not just what we throw in the bin! Every day, many of us dispose of products down the toilet that we are generally unaware contain plastic, but once they spin down the drain, that’s where the complications really begin…
One of the biggest issues we have with regards to the problem with plastic disposal in drainage, is that many of us don’t realise that the products we are using have actually got plastic in them! Many products on the market that are marked as ‘flushable’ in fact, aren’t, and so when we pop those eco-friendly cleaning wipes or moisturising face wipes down the toilet, what we don’t realise, is that these items aren’t able to break down naturally once they have reached the sewer system and so build up to cause a multitude of problems from localised blockages to long term sea pollution.
One of the main causes for the confusion is that although a lot of these products list their ingredients for shifting make up or killing germs on the label, and have that wonderful little word ‘eco’ on the front, most of them don’t actually list the materials involved in the actual wipes, and fail to mention the fact that plastic is a key ingredient.
Plastic as an ingredient
Plastic is often added to wipes to make them stronger and more durable for us to use – essentially giving us that extra scrubbing power so they don’t disintegrate in our hands! As great as that is for us removing our waterproof mascara, it isn’t so great for our drainage systems as these products cannot be broken down by naturally occurring bacteria or even the force of the sewer system.
And it isn’t just wipes that are the problem – nappies, sanitary items, cotton buds and more are all disposed of down our toilets daily, and the build-up of these can lead to the issue of fatbergs and severe blockages. As these items are impossible to break down naturally, they sit in our sewer systems for years on end until eventually they form huge masses, or filter through out to sea where they are picked up by marine life mistaking them for food.
The effects of plastic on marine life
We have all seen the photos of the turtles eating plastic bags or seahorses carrying cotton buds in their tails, but this is just a basic representation of the problem with marine life’s relationship with plastic. Even if the ingestion of these materials doesn’t lead to immediate death, the micro-plastic particles can sit in the stomach of these animals until they are eaten by predators or caught for human consumption. What many people also don’t consider is the fact that the plastics that are entering the biological systems of sea animals such as fish, crabs and lobster, can eventually end up back in the human dietary system after the ingestion of these animals – in essence, if the fish have been eating micro-plastic based products such as the plastic beads found in face scrubs (which have now thankfully been banned in the UK,) we will in turn ingest it when we eat the fish!
What can you do to help?
So what can we do to help the situation? Although this is a global issue, there are a number of small things we can do to decrease the problem. By making some small conscious changes to our everyday routine, not only can we drastically reduce the amount of routine blockages and drainage problems caused by plastic build up, be we can also radically reduce the amount of plastic reaching the oceans due to drainage disposal. Here are a few helpful tips to get you started:
Not down the loo!
The best option with any household waste is not to flush it down the toilet. Keep to the 3 P’s (pee, poo and paper) and throw everything else in the bin. Cotton buds, nappies and sanitary items simply cannot be broken down in our sewer systems, so it’s best to just throw these substances straight in the bin where they can be disposed of safely by the correct authorities. To avoid any problems, the following items should be put straight in the bin –
- Sanitary items
- Cotton buds
- Wipes of all kinds
- Wrappers and packaging
- Contact Lenses
- Bandages and Plasters
- Razor Blades
- Dental floss
- Hygiene seals ie. Tabs on toothpaste and mouthwash bottles
- Ignore the label
Although it’s great to check the label, chances are they can be misleading – only including the chemicals involved in shifting that stubborn grease and not the materials that the wipes are actually made up of. Many labels include the words ‘eco’ or ‘bio-degradable’ which tricks us into thinking they are safe for the environment and therefore if we flush them, they’ll just break down and float away. Sadly this isn’t the case and even the best of these products can take months the breakdown, if they ever do at all. The best option is to choose a bio-degradable option to minimise the risk of plastic content, but then bypass the loo and throw them straight into the bin.
Look for the ‘fine to flush’ logo
Since January 2019, the ‘fine to flush’ logo has been rolled out in the EU to help identify that these products have passed the Water UK’s stringent tests on flushable products. Although their use is still not ideally recommended, if you simply can’t live without your flushable wipes, these are the best products to head for!