How crappy is South America’s plumbing?

In most of Latin America the practice is not to flush toilet paper. Instead you put the paper in a small bin which is (hopefully) placed a handy distance from where you’re seated. Hostels try to announce this cheerfully with signs that say things like “If you haven’t eaten it don’t flush it”.

Apparently South American plumbing isn’t up to processing toilet paper. I’ve not really been satisfied with this explanation. You can still flush other things after all.

The first thing you find  googling  is  complaining gringos who think flushing is supremely hygienic. Some claim that it’s completely fine to flush even when you’re told it’s not. Others have even developed  flushing strategies. But the fact that some individuals – mostly travelers – don’t encounter, any problems, isn’t enough to dismiss the claims of the no-flushers. Impacts could be cumulative.

The reasoning from the no-flushers has never been cultural, always about plumbing, so that’s where I have focused my attention. Is South American plumbing more crappy than what we have at home? The answer seems to be, yes.

For starters, while we take for granted that our bathrooms are connected to municipal sewage systems in urban New Zealand, that’s not the case here. Most toilets here connect to septic tanks. In colonial times nothing else was available. Costs of replacement have evidently been prohibitively high here, if not in richer parts of the world.

But the story doesn’t end there. Of course rural New Zealanders still flush into  septic tanks. But theirs are different. They’re made of plastic, have manholes to allow clearing and a plastic piping filtering system. Older tanks are more likely to be made of concrete, include impenetrable concrete tops and a filtering system that uses gravel.

Toilet paper isn’t great for Western septic tanks, apparently. Eventually it builds up in the tank with other non-boidegradable material and needs to be cleared through manholes. That sounds stinky, but is not such a big deal. But, owing to the concrete covers on South American tanks, it is much harder and more expensive to do. Which is more, the South American filtering system is easily clogged. Bits of toilet paper will clog the system up and stop anything else down there from moving around.

Net result: South American plumbing is genuinely more vulnerable to flushed toilet paper. No one absentmindedly flushed paper will ruin the system, but they could eventually break the camel’s back.

Fiona wondered whether the no-flushers are preferable environmentally. I’ve lound no conclusive evidence. I guess sewage treatment beats septic tanks, but that’s not really the  question. Organisations like the WWF encourage us to use less, and better (i.e. recycled)  paper, but they don’t take a position on the flush issue. That may not be the end of the issue. For starters, they might just think that broaching this subject is taboo and would yield them with less donations for pandas. But I do wonder whether the flushers or trashers use more paper. I’m confident there’s a non-crappy PhD in it.

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