or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 2/6/11

   February 12th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Tissues, before and afterThis question was new to me, but apparently it's been around awhile. A patron asked:

Is it more environmentally-friendly to throw a used tissue in the trash can or to flush it down the toilet?

While I thought about how to find an answer for that, the patron laid out some of the logic: if you throw a tissue away, it goes to the landfill where it takes time to decompose, plus there is the environmental cost of the pollution from the trucks driving it there. On the other hand, flushing a tissue uses water, and also puts more contaminants into the wastewater system.

Through searching online, I did find a few websites that addressed the question. These seemed good, but to get a more authoritative answer, I also asked my town's Department of Recycling and Solid Waste, and a friend of mine who is an aquatic resource biologist in South Carolina (I also wrote to the EPA library and their regional library in Boston, but no response from them yet).

From what I could gather, the consensus seems to be:

  • It's okay to flush a tissue if
    • it is specifically designed to break down in water (like toilet paper), and
    • you were going to flush the toilet anyway, and
    • the toilet goes to the municipal sewer, and not a septic system

    Otherwise, you're wasting water and/or potentially adding unnecessary pollutants (in the form of dyes and chemicals that might be in the tissues) to the water system.

  • Throwing them in the trash can isn't a great option because
    • it can take years for tissues to actually break down
    • you're putting whatever chemicals and dyes that were in the tissue into the ground
    • and of course there's all the fuel burned moving our trash around

  • Composting is an option that the patron hadn't considered, but this option is only really viable if
    • you're not composting a whole lot of tissues, and
    • you only compost tissues with no bleaches or chemicals or dyes so that you're not polluting your soil
  • A fourth option is burning them, which actually seems like the best option because
    • if you've already got a fire going, there are none of the environmental impacts listed above, and
    • there is the beneficial result of giving off heat

    Of course, most people (in this country) don't often have a fire going, and I don't know if saving them up for when there is a fire is entirely hygienic. But it's not wholly impractical, and does sound like the most environmentally-friendly option.

I provided this information to the patron over the course of a couple days (after waiting for return emails and continued searching after the patron had left), and he was pretty happy. I don't think composting or burning were of interest to him - he just wanted to know if flushing was better than trashing.

In that case, it sounds like the best thing to do is blow your nose on toilet paper, and throw it in the toilet - but don't flush it until you actually need to. And when you buy tissues and toilet paper, get the kind without any bleach or chemicals, so that when they end up in the landfill or treatment plant, they break down quickly with as little impact as possible.

Alright, so nose-blowing isn't all that pleasant a topic, but I personally found this question fascinating. It's one of those "how can I make the world a better place in little ways" approach to life that may or may not have any impact at all on a personal level, but seems like it would make a huge difference if everyone did it. Besides, it's the perfect set-up for this joke:

Hey, want to hear a joke about tissues?
It's going to be disgusting, like flushing them down the toilet, isn't it?
No itsnot.

Ha, I'm so glad my inner child has never left the playground.

Update 2/16/11
I got a message back today from the EPA, and their response was interesting:

Thank you for your inquiry to the EPA Web site. Your request has been received by the Headquarters Public Access Service, a contractor operated reference and referral service.

You asked whether it's preferable to dispose of facial tissues in the trash or the toilet.

EPA does not have any information on this topic on its website. However, many local government websites do, and the consensus seems to be that flushing of anything other than human waste and toilet tissue creates a burden or causes damage to the sewer system.

King County, WA - Wastewater Treatment:
This resource covers several aspects of this topic, and states:
"You'll also conserve water by not using your toilet as as a trash can. Each unnecessary flush of trash uses at least three gallons of water that could be saved for better uses."

Pender County Utilities advises:
"Never use the toilet to dispose of cleansing tissues, cigarette butts or other trash. This can waste a great deal of water and also places an unnecessary load on the sewage treatment process."

City of Tampa, FL - What Happens After the Flush?

We hope you find this information helpful.

Thank you.

Thank you EPA - this information is very helpful.

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