It seems innocent enough—a tablespoon or two of olive oil here, a few stray hairs there. And when they slide down the sink drain, the process is so effortlessly smooth that it’s hard to imagine things so small could create such big drain problems. But all of those seemingly slight drain pipe offenses add up to annoying clogs (and even more annoying headaches in dealing with them), not to mention the impact it has on our water systems and the creatures that rely on them for survival. Since we all have a vested interest in keeping our water clean and plentiful (unless you enjoy water spiked with chemical remnants), it’s in our best interest to remember what should never get washed down the drain.
Where Does It Go—And What’s in It?
To understand the problems certain items can cause, it helps to understand the drainage process itself. After water is flushed down the toilet or sent down the sink drain, it flows through underground pipes that send it to a wastewater treatment plant (or to a septic tank, if the house is in a less-populated area). Once it reaches the plant, large debris gets filtered out and the residual water is cleaned out again before it flows into larger bodies of water like lakes and oceans.
Faucet water is water that’s been collected from bodies of water and made drinkable at water treatment plants with the help of filters and substances that clean the water and rid it of foul flavors and aromas, plus chlorine to prevent bacteria formation. It’s more environmentally-friendly and cheaper than bottled water, and many brands of bottled water use tap water as their source.
According to the Water Environment Federation, every individual in the U.S. sends an average of 150 gallons of wastewater per day down the pipelines. That seems like an absurdly large number, but all of the bathroom trips, showers, and dish-washing add up quickly. So even though it doesn’t seem like the occasional breaking of drainage rules has that much impact, U.S. Geological Survey proved in a 2002 study that it absolutely does. USGS scientists sampled 139 bodies of water across the country. Eighty percent of the streams had wastewater contaminants, with almost seventy streams containing at least seven different kinds of chemical contaminants.
The Biggest Pipeline Offenders
While our water and wastewater treatment plants are efficient, there’s only so much that they can remove from the water. As evidenced by the 2002 study, there are a lot of contaminants entering our waterways and potentially harming not only aquatic life, but us as well, since we eventually drink from that water. Certain products should never come into contact with drain pipes because they can erode them or plug them up too easily. To prevent our water from being contaminated, keep these things out of drains and toilets:
Oils and Grease: This includes cooking oils, animal fat, used motor oil, and even oil-based cosmetics. Once these types of liquids cool (which they eventually would in drain pipes), they tend to congeal and plug things up. Not only could this disrupt the household system, it could block sewer lines and spill sewage into surrounding bodies of water.
Hazardous Waste: Leftover paint, gasoline, antifreeze, cleansers, pesticides, and other chemical-heavy liquids should never go down the drain. Instead, deposit them at a local collection depot where it’ll be disposed of properly.
Prescription Drugs: Expired or unused medication, prescribed or over-the-counter, should be taken to a pharmacy.
Garbage-Only Items: Things that should always go in the trash include dental floss, cigarette butts, tampons/sanitary pads, condoms, hair (human or pet), cotton balls, makeup, diapers, and food. Even with a garbage disposal, some food items are guaranteed to eventually clog the drain or break the disposal system:
- Fruit and vegetable skins (from bananas, potatoes, apples, onions, etc.)
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Bones of any size
- Cooked rice
- Stringy vegetables (asparagus, celery, etc.)
I used to have a roommate who loved to play the “What Can I Throw Down the Disposal?” game. He believed that anything he could force down the drain was fit for garbage disposal duty. Of course, he hated the subsequent game, “Guess What Broke the Disposal This Time?” Don’t be like my former roommate—scrape plates clean before putting them in the sink to minimize how many food particles go down the drain. Investing in a strainer for the sink is a great idea, too.
A Word on the Water’s Impact
Water is such an essential component of life that it seems dangerous to pollute it so easily by being careless. We shouldn’t have to worry about what we’re imbibing whenever we pour a glass of water from the sink, or what chemicals we’re inadvertently leaching into the wetlands. And while it’s true we can’t minimize what everybody else puts down the drain or flushes down the toilet, we do have control over our own pollution contribution.
Walking the extra few feet to the trash or driving the few extra miles to a hazardous waste depot might take a little more effort, but when one considers just how big of a role water—and therefore all of its contaminants—play in our lives and the environment in general, it’s a small price to pay for greater peace of mind.