flushing refuse
March 22, 2006 8:26 AM   Subscribe

I have to pee. I also have to blow my nose. Is it more environmentally friendly to toss my snotty Kleenex into the trash or into the toilet (which I was going to flush anyway)?
posted by mookieproof to Science & Nature (18 answers total)
Generally it is more environmentally friendly to throw it into the toilet. Because most water treatment facilities in the more developed world have up to tertiary treatment, the impacts of that kleenex on the environment is much lower.

In a landfill, where it will end up when you throw it in the garbage, that kleenex will probably persist for decades, if not longer. Be aware, however, that undegradable solid waste from water treatment facilities is often landfilled (though most of, if not all of, your kleenex is degradable).

One word of caution, however: Kleenex WILL NOT be good for a septic system, and could be pretty rough on plumbing. If you really want to wipe your nose and throw it in the toilet, just use clean toilet tissue...
posted by sablazo at 8:43 AM on March 22, 2006

It is more environmentally friendly to use a handkerchief, which is reuseable.
posted by raedyn at 9:01 AM on March 22, 2006

Blow your nose on toilet tissue, fold it well, wipe yourself after you pee with the clean bit, and throw it away. Note: do not try this in reverse!
posted by hazyjane at 9:27 AM on March 22, 2006

hazyjane has it. Think about it this way. Kleenex is designed to hold up to pressure when it gets wet -- this is what makes it good for blowing your nose in. Toilet tissue is good for dissolving in sewers or septic tanks -- this is why it's generally a good idea to use more than a single square. These two properties are at odds. If you're throwing it in the toilet, it should be toilet tissue.
posted by gleuschk at 9:39 AM on March 22, 2006

C) Compost.
posted by Robot Johnny at 9:43 AM on March 22, 2006

Kleenex themselves are far from environmentally friendly, apparently. So why not just blow your nose on the toilet paper and flush that?
posted by easternblot at 10:07 AM on March 22, 2006

It depends on the treatment process in the area where you live. Some areas dispose of any solids in the landfill, some areas use them as fertilizers. Check with your wastewater district if you want to make the most informed choice, but ideally you should get rid of paper in the trash.
posted by JJ86 at 10:15 AM on March 22, 2006

I vote toilet.

Landfills are fairly sterile because they are mostly dry. The Garbology project among others has shown that paper products essentially fossilize in municipal landfills. Any tissues you throw out to landfill will be largely preserved intact, undegraded for a very long time, decades, if not centuries. There is some interest now in using landfill as feedstock for natural gas generation, but these are, by and large, still in the early days and not very common. Other options include electrical generation by high temperature incineration of municipal solid wastes (MSW), but that has to be done very carefully to not be a big emissions problem. Garbage incineration is also a very politicized issue.

On the other hand, most municipal sewage facilities have some sort of solids reduction/sludge treatment. Solid wastes (sludge) are often promoted as agricultural fertilizers, certainly in my neck of the woods. Many activists claim, however, that sewage solids have unacceptably high levels of metals, persistent organic pollutants or E. choli levels. Their claims are not generally accepted however.

So your tissue gets turned into a useful product in the wastewater stream, agricultural fertilizer, and possibly some biogas, depending on your municipality. In the municipal solid waste stream paper is simply stored and becomes a space problem with no net benefit. Looks like sewage wins.

Lots of caveats: if sludge is too dangerous to use as agricultural waste, if landfills get turning to big bioreactors (HUGE project), if MSW goes to power-generating incinerators rather than landfill, this balance may change.
posted by bonehead at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2006

Third hazyjane's "live lightly in the loo" 'tude.
But really, you're allowed a few squares for snot, a few different squares for what's not.
posted by rob511 at 12:31 PM on March 22, 2006

Almost any type of rubbish may restrict sewage flow, clog sewers, and cause sewage overflows. Keep the following from going down your toilet and sinks: Paper (paper towels, facial tissue (Kleenex), paper napkins, wrappers, etc.). Only toilet tissue is okay! (NY Sewer Maintenance Division).

Each disposal method has its issues. It's more important to reduce the amount of Kleenex you use overall.
posted by Sharcho at 1:29 PM on March 22, 2006

Tissues compost nicely.
posted by kc0dxh at 1:30 PM on March 22, 2006

Each disposal method has its issues. It's more important to reduce the amount of Kleenex you use overall. - Sharcho

Thus my suggestion @ the top of the thread - use a washable reuseable cloth hanky.
posted by raedyn at 2:22 PM on March 22, 2006

1. Wastewater plants settle out the solids first -- I'm not sure if kleenex would settle out or already be floaty/dissolved.

If it doesn't settle out in primary treatment, it'll be digested by bacteria in secondary treatment, being converted to bacteria body mass (landfilled, I believe) and methane. Some sewage plants burn this methane to generate electricity. (This whole sludge-as-fertilizer thing is a really bad idea, so hopefully your municipality doesn't do it.)

2. I second the concerns on Kleenex -- apparently Kimberly-Clark is logging 180-year-old trees in Canada for Kleenex and Kleenex is only 19% recycled -- (maybe buy something more recycled or use a hanky?)

3. I know AskMe is for answering questions, but thought I'd mention that environmental advice columnist "Ask Umbra" specifically notes that there are bigger environmental issues than Kleenex flushing.
posted by salvia at 3:13 PM on March 22, 2006

If you use a re-usable cloth hanky, what about the environmental costs of the water, energy and detergent used to wash it?

I'm not sure that everything in a landfill is "essentially fossilized" either. I've been told in other discussions that it depends on the moisture around: the Garbology project in Arizona was of a very dry landfill.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:18 PM on March 22, 2006

If you use a re-usable cloth hanky, what about the environmental costs of the water, energy and detergent used to wash it? - TheophileEscargot

I believe (without having a cite) that those costs are less than the costs of cutting trees, processing them into facial tissues (including bleaching), packaging, transporting, and then having them sit in a landfill over and over everytime you blow your nose. This would be even more the case if you use more natural cleansers rather than damaging detergents, and if you have lower water & energy consumption laundry appliances, and use cold water to wash. The only way to completely avoid an environmental impact is to not wipe your nose. Assuming you intend to not let mucus drip down your face, you can make choices to lessen the impact of that.
posted by raedyn at 3:33 PM on March 22, 2006

Best answer: As a plumber I reccomend not putting anything down the toilet that isn't human waste or toilet paper. Toilet paper is designed to degrade after contact with water. Anything else will stay solid, end up getting screened out at a wastewater reclaimation plant, then eventually packaged up with all the other tissues, clothes, condoms, and G.I. Joe men and shipped to a landfill. If you're lucky the plant might turn the waste solids into fertilizer, in which case the tissue might be safely incorporated into next year's crop.

If your house sewer goes into a grinder pump and a force-main sewer you're a little better off. The grinder will reduce the tissue to fragments. If you have a septic tank I seriously don't reccomend it, although in the end it'll get pumped out when the tank is serviced every few years.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:04 PM on March 22, 2006

Using a hanky might be a more environmentally appropriate way to go but carrying around all those germs is not very pro-health. Yech.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:17 AM on March 23, 2006

Because you sure don't carry around any germs when you use a tissue and then toss it. Nosiree. Everybody knows germs are exclusively carried in mucus. ;)
posted by raedyn at 1:43 PM on March 23, 2006

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