Our trash that goes in the can or recycling is waste we have no choice but to face. Whether it’s hauling the trash cans to the sidewalk, bringing recycling to a center–it’s a mass of garbage that we have to contend with. Liquid waste, on the other hand, simply gets rinsed down the drain and it’s “bye-bye never have to think about you again.” It’s a much more expedient process–one that’s hidden from the eyes of any sanitation departments–and one that can wreak waves of environmental chaos, not to mention what it can do to your pipes. We often don’t realize the harm we are doing by what we rinse down our kitchen sinks, bath and shower drains, and even what we flush down our toilets.
In a study published in 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collected and analyzed water samples from 139 streams in 30 states. The goal of the study was to measure concentrations of 95 wastewater-related organic chemicals in water. And guess what? One or more of these chemicals were found in 80 percent of the streams sampled. Half of the streams contained seven or more of these chemicals, and about one-third of the streams contained 10 or more of these chemicals. Pharmaceutical and personal-care products are to blame for many of the chemicals found in the USGS study. Research has shown that there can be effects on aquatic organisms like fish and frogs. Lesson here: don’t flush unwanted prescriptions and try to purchase all-natural personal care products.
But another area of concern is kitchen waste–namely fats, oils and greases which can not only clog pipes, but are terrible for sewage systems. According to the Watership Environment Foundation (WEF), sewer overflows and backups can cause health hazards, damage home interiors, and threaten the environment. An increasingly common cause of overflows is sewer pipes blocked by grease–this results in raw sewage overflowing in your home or your neighbor’s home; An expensive and unpleasant cleanup that often must be paid for by you, the homeowner; Raw sewage overflowing into parks, yards, and streets; Potential contact with disease-causing organisms; and an increase in operation and maintenance costs for local sewer departments, which causes higher sewer bills for customers.
Where does the grease that causes sewer overflows come from? Much of it from the kitchen sink.
- Meat fats
- Cooking oil
- Butter and margarine
- Food scraps
- Baking goods
- Dairy products
Grease sticks to the insides of sewer pipes (both on your property and in the streets). Over time, the grease can build up and block the entire pipe. Note that home garbage disposals do not keep grease out of the plumbing system. These units only shred solid material into smaller pieces and do not prevent grease from going down the drain. Commercial additives, including detergents, that claim to dissolve grease may pass grease down the line and cause problems in other areas.
WEF suggests these tips to alleviate pipe blockage and sewer overflows:
• Never pour grease down sink drains or into toilets.
• Scrape grease and food scraps from trays, plates, pots, pans, utensils, and grills and cooking surfaces into a can or the trash for disposal (or recycling where available).
• Do not put grease down garbage disposals. Put baskets/strainers in sink drains to catch food scraps and other solids, and empty the drain baskets/strainers into the trash for disposal.
• Speak with your friends and neighbors about the problem of grease in the sewer system and how to keep it out.
• Call your local sewer system authority if you have any questions.
Other things to never wash down your drain:
- Fats, oils or grease from cars or lawnmowers
- Coffee grinds
- Egg shells
- Produce stickers
- Chunks of garbage
- Feminine hygiene products
- Paper towels
- Flushable cat litter
- Motor oil, transmission fluids, anti-freeze or other toxic chemicals
- Solvents, paints, turpentine, nail polish, polish remover
- Flammable or explosive substances
- Corrosive substances that are either acidic or caustic
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications
For more information on how to dispose of old medication and personal care products, read Medicine Cabinet Clean-Out.