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See if you can figure out how the following are related. You and your family visit your favorite local lake for some swimming fun, only to find out it’s covered in algae blooms. Your kiddo complains of a stomach bug and you’re stumped because you cooked pasta. You flush, only to watch in horror as the water level in the toilet rises instead of falls.
Stumped? These situations can all be caused by a faulty septic system. 25% of American homes have these “off-the-grid” systems— it’s like a mini-sewage treatment plant on private property. If you’re reading this, chances are you own one. (Who else would read an article about septic tanks???)
Septic systems need good care and maintenance— including using the best toilet paper— to avoid clogged pipes or worse, environmental or public health disasters. Let’s go through some common issues with septic tanks, and how biodegradable toilet paper can keep your pipes flowing without issues.
A septic tank is a mini-sewage treatment system contained within your property. Almost 20% of American households rely on a septic system, instead of a municipal sewage network. They’re more common in rural areas and states like Vermont where the cost of connecting to a city sewer system would be prohibitive.
Even if you own a septic tank, you may not know how it works. Here’s the basic process.
Septic tanks aren’t just for toilet waste. All wastewater from household activities flows through pipes to the tank. The tank is an underground watertight container, usually made of fiberglass, plastic, or concrete. In the tank, solid waste sinks to the bottom, while oils and grease float to the top.
Over time, anaerobic bacteria work to break down the solid waste. This is how the grease, oil, and fats rise to the top. The solid waste, or sludge, stays at the bottom of the tank, while the oils, or scum, rise to the top.
The pipe that filters the remaining water out is low enough to prevent the scum from flowing out. The water flows into a drainfield, or leach field, which consists of a perforated pipe. The water seeps out into the soil, where it’s filtered, removing harmful bacteria. The filtered water makes its way to streams, rivers, or the local groundwater table.
Soil is an excellent medium for filtering wastewater. And when septic tanks are properly installed and maintained, there’s no cause for concern. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Considering that 1 in 5 American households have the equivalent of a mini-sewage treatment plant in their backyards, the costs of improper installation and maintenance of your tank could be disastrous.
When septic systems are improperly installed, the wastewater doesn’t get filtered through the soil. In some cases, the still-contaminated water leaches into aquifers. These aquifers provide water for wells that supply drinking water to homes and businesses. In one unfortunate case in Wisconsin, a restaurant’s septic system failed. The wastewater leaked into the aquifer, contaminating the drinking water. Two hundred eleven diners and 18 employees fell ill with norovirus.
Too many nutrients in groundwater can actually be a bad thing. When phosphorus and nitrogen are abundant, they upset the nutrient balance in lakes and streams. There they fertilize bacteria and algae, which then grow at alarming rates. These algae blooms are toxic to humans and animals, and they can choke out other plant life.
While soil acts as an excellent filter for the bacteria that live in wastewater, it can’t filter out chemicals. Medicine, cleaning products, and other potentially toxic chemicals can leach from groundwater into lakes and streams. When fish and other wildlife drink the water, they aren’t able to excrete the chemicals. These chemicals may cause cancer, respiratory problems, and reproductive issues in wildlife.
Not only can these chemicals cause health problems for humans and wildlife, but they can also upset the bacteria balance in your septic system. Antibiotics in particular can wipe out the bacteria your tank needs to keep breaking down solid waste. And that means a clogged tank for you.
But that’s not the only reason a septic tank can back up.
People cite lack of sewer bills as a perk to owning a septic system. But it’s important to factor in the cost of maintenance of your tank. Trust me— you don’t just want to set it and forget it. You’ll have a huge bill on your hands when the system fails. Not to mention the environmental and health costs listed above.
Here are the main reasons your septic tank will clog.
A septic tank is capable of holding between 750-1250 gallons of water and waste. Eventually, though, you’ll need to have it pumped. Experts recommend routine maintenance and pumping every 3-5 years.
Septic systems are meant to handle household waste, but not all waste. The truth is, your septic tank is delicate. It wants only the bare minimum of wastewater and byproducts to avoid clogging. Upsetting the balance by flushing wet wipes, feminine hygiene products, and other nonbiodegradable waste will result in big problems.
Even using standard toilet paper can harm your septic system.
Traditional toilet paper is not only harmful to the environment but it’s also harmful to your septic system. While it’s true that all toilet paper dissolves, standard toilet paper will slowly. That’s because the long fibers used in toilet paper made from virgin trees don’t break down quickly.
And the chlorine used to manufacture traditional toilet paper can upset the delicate balance of bacteria in your tank.
The sad truth is when it comes to septic system health, you can’t just grab any standard toilet paper off the shelves. For the reasons above, traditional toilet paper made from trees can wreck your septic system.
To get the best performance out of your tank, use biodegradable toilet paper.
But wait— isn’t all toilet paper biodegradable? Yes and no. Have you ever been camping and had the misfortune of stumbling across globs of toilet paper, half dissolved? Gross. (BTW, LNT).
Even in a rainy environment, that toilet paper might be there for years. But biodegradable toilet paper breaks down up to four times faster than traditional toilet paper. The fibers from the materials used are shorter than those from virgin trees, so they dissolve faster in water.
That’s important for your septic system, because it can only hold so much, and needs to break down solid waste products to keep working. So how long it takes toilet paper to dissolve in a septic tank can make a huge difference in whether it will clog.
You have options when it comes to choosing toilet paper that will break down fast in your septic tank.
Pros: dissolves fast, less harmful to the environment than traditional toilet paper
Cons: scratchy, might tear in your hands, often processed with chlorine
Pros: biodegradable, fewer chemicals needed to process fibers into tissue
Cons: not as soft as bamboo, requires fertilizers to grow, not as eco-friendly as bamboo toilet paper
Pros: soft, biodegradable, most eco-friendly option (generates 30% less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional toilet paper
Cons: requires shipping from China, where bamboo naturally grows. But don't worry, Cloud Paper double offsets the carbon footprint created in shipping our bamboo toilet paper
So what’s the verdict? Is bamboo toilet paper septic safe? The answer is yes. Biodegradable bamboo toilet paper is key to a healthy septic system, along with proper care and maintenance. It breaks down faster than traditional toilet paper, and is processed without the use of chlorine.
If your septic tank has been well-maintained, you shouldn’t have any issues with bamboo toilet paper.
But how can you really tell if a toilet paper is septic-safe? Listen to the folks with septic tanks who’ve tried it:
Soft, septic-safe, and environmentally friendly? Sounds like a win to us.
Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. Your septic tank is not a ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ system. It requires care to prolong its lifespan, stay unclogged, and prevent environmental harm.
Here are a few recommendations to help your septic tank function for years.
You should schedule maintenance and have your septic tank pumped every 2-5 years. A good inspector will determine if your tank is up to code, as well as assess the condition of the tank and its pipes.
Using biodegradable cleaning products is just as important as toilet paper. Any cleaner that gets flushed or washed down your drains should be as natural as possible. Try an eco-friendly cleaner like Blueland. They make multipurpose kitchen and bathroom products that are sustainable and free of harmful chemicals.
This one is worth repeating. In short— if it’s not biodegradable toilet paper or human waste, don’t flush it!
Here’s a longer list of things to keep out of your tank:
Keeping your septic system maintained will help avoid environmental disasters, health problems, and unfortunate, stinky accidents. Using biodegradable toilet paper, such as bamboo, is a key part of septic tank care.