Think before you flush: Gatineau launches campaign to limit objects in sewage

The City of Gatineau has a blunt message for residents: don't treat your toilet like a garbage can.

'It's not a garbage, it's a toilet'

Some of the objects collected at the sewage treatment plant in Gatineau, Que. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

The city of Gatineau has a blunt message for residents: don't treat your toilet like a garbage.

On Tuesday, the city opened the doors of its sewage treatment plant to reporters, for a look at the problems posed when people flush away solid objects.

"The most common stuff we find is dental floss, hair, wipes, female hygiene products and condoms," said Guy Crégheur, the sewage plant's director.
Every year, the City of Gatineau collects 200 tonnes of solid objects disposed of in toilets. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Reclaiming dentures a no-go

Crégheur's team keeps a hall of shame of objects collected over the years from the more than 51 million litres of waste water treated at the plant every year. (Water collected from storm sewers is not directed to the city's sewage plant.)

Among the odder objects on display are a small teddy bear, a golf ball, a small toy car, and dentures.
"It's not a garbage, it's a toilet," said Guy Crégheur, the chief of Gatineau's sewage treatment plant. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

In the case of the latter, Crégheur said some residents have actually called the city asking if their dentures showed up, with the hope of reclaiming them. However, Crégheur said the city does not return objects collected in the sewage water.

While flushed dentures are likely accidental, Crégheur believes many residents are simply unaware of the consequences of tossing objects in their toilet. 

"It's not a garbage, it's a toilet," said Crégheur. "Only three things go in." (In case you're wondering, Crégheur clarified his comment by saying the third item is toilet paper.)
A worker removes solid waste from a separator at Gatineau's waste-water facility. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Hair and dental floss cause biggest headache

All those small solid objects add up to roughly 200 tonnes per year.

While large filters and grates can sift out most of the larger objects, the big problem is posed by hair and dental floss that accumulates on the mixing blades in the plant's digesters.

"They just get into a big chunk, and we get a mechanical breakage," said Crégheur.
Human hair and dental floss disposed of in toilets can end up entangling the blades of the plant's digesters. The only solution to remove the mass is by hand using a utility knife. (Supplied/City of Gatineau)

The only fix is for workers to pull off the blades and remove the mass of entangled dental floss and hair from the blades using a utility knife, or replace the propeller all together at a cost of $20,000.

Crégheur said if residents doubled their effort to limit the flushing of hair and dental floss alone, he believes he could cut in half the number of time his crews are forced to clear the blades.

"You have to work at the source. The source is the citizen," said Crégheur 
The City of Gatineau is distributing door pamphlets to remind residents what they're allowed and not allowed to dispose of in toilets. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

With that in mind, Gatineau is running a public awareness campaign, which includes a cute door hanging pamphlet in the shape of a toilet, urging residents to avoid using their toilet as a waste bin.