The Biggest Polluter In Our Sewers Isn't Poop

No one ever said the water and sewerage industry was going to be glamorous.

But when I eagerly embarked on my first tour of a sewage treatment plant (#careergoals), I was prepared for a whole lot of crap, the type that nature calls, not the type I found.

Me: "What IS all this?"

Unsung Aussie HERO aka Treatment Plant Operator: "Oh, that's just people treating the toilet like a rubbish bin."

On reluctant closer inspection, it was stinking clear. Condoms hung limply (having seen much brighter days), wet wipes tangled to form a bed for 'lollipop sticks' that were once cotton buds, and dozens of bloated tampons glared out at me.

After seeing this, you'd think nothing would shock me.

But then I discovered something a lot worse, women (a whole heap of us) don't even realise you CAN'T flush tampons.

Wasn't everyone taught it was a no-no? It seems no-no.

A survey we conducted found more than one in ten women flush tampons, but anecdotally it's much higher. It was news to most of my girlfriends and the overwhelming sentiment from office chit-chat was that women had no idea you couldn't flush tampons until they started working for Queensland Urban Utilities.

So why can't you just flush those little white angels?

Tampons are designed to soak up, not separate. Which means, once flushed, they certainly don't go with the flow.

They're solid little suckers which can block your pipes (possibly meaning raw sewage backing up into your bathroom), or block our pipes (possibly meaning sewage overflowing into the environment). And if those pesky period pals do make it to our treatment plants, it's a big expensive dirty problem. At Queensland Urban Utilities we spend $400,000 a year scraping more than 1300 tonnes of junk from our machines and sending it to the tip.

This brings me to my most shocking discovery. Many women know they shouldn't flush tampons but do it anyway – citing crazy excuses.

Excuse: I've never had a blockage and I've flushed heaps of tampons.

Reply: Does that mean you'll wait until raw sewage is spilling out into your shiny bathroom to change your tune? Also, your flushing habit might be causing a blockage for your building or your neighbour or elsewhere in the network.

Excuse: The packet says I can flush it, so why shouldn't I?

Reply: Unfortunately, labelling can be very misleading. Technically, many things are 'flushable' in that they will go through the s-bend. We've seen many weird things come through the system like toys and shoes! Just because it can be flushed, does not mean it should be.

Excuse: I pay water and sewerage bills so I should be able to flush whatever I like, including tampons.

Reply: You're paying your utility to be wastewater treaters not garbage collectors. We spend more than $5 million a year cleaning sewers of all the junk that gathers inside and another $1.5 million clearing blockages. This money could be much better spent on delivering your water and sewerage service.

Excuse: I don't have a bin in my bathroom.

Reply: Get one. You can pick up a bathroom bin for a few dollars from shops like Kmart or Big W, and this move could ultimately save you a hefty plumbing bill.

Excuse: It's gross having tampons in the bin.

Reply: Most things in bins are gross if left for a while, so just empty your bin often or invest in menstrual cups and underwear that don't produce any waste!

Excuse: There's no toilet paper, so what am I supposed to wrap the tampon in?

Reply: This is one reason why it's handy to always carry tissues in your handbag.

Excuse: Wrapping a tampon wastes too much toilet paper.

Reply: An expensive roll of TP works out to around 30 cents per 100 sheets. So even if you use 50 sheets to wrap one tampon, it's only 15 cents!

Excuse: I'm embarrassed to leave my tampons in bins at other people's houses.

Reply: Just wrap it in toilet paper and don't worry about it. The only thing we need to do more than not flushing tampons is not flushing women with shame over something perfectly normal.

Excuse: My one little flushed tampon won't make a difference.

Reply: Have you heard the story about the mouse sinking the boat? The average Australian woman uses more than 10,000 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime and almost 300 million tampons are sold in Australia each year. It adds up, and believe me, blocks up.

And if you really want to help our sewerage network and the environment, ditch tampons altogether and opt for menstrual cups or period underwear!

Sally Prosser works for Queensland's largest water and sewerage provider Urban Utilities. When not advocating for only flushing the Three Ps, Sally is a voice and presentation coach and a proud AirBnB superhost.

Read this next: Everything You Need To Know About Wearing Menstrual Underwear


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