Impact of what we flush down the toilet now evident along our beaches

Killala Bay spanning counties Mayo and Sligo is renowned for its natural beauty. We all have memories of time spent on golden beaches with family or friends enjoying long hot summer days (or let’s be honest, running into the sand dunes seeking shelter during summer rains). 

And although time has the ability to make those distant childhood summers seem warmer and more fun filled, time does not change some things. The beaches and surrounding areas along Mayo and Sligo’s coastline still have the same WOW factor today as they did all those years ago. 

It may be human nature, but when something is on your doorstep and so readily accessible, one can become complacent of its beauty and its vulnerabilities. Our beaches and our natural environment are no different. In 2020 we are more aware of our ever changing climate, wetter winters, increased storms, flooding, coastal erosion and other natural threats impacting upon the way we live. However it seems that we are not as aware of the link between what we flush down the toilet and the increasing amount of sanitary related products being found on our local beaches and shorelines. The impacts from such actions are now evident along our beaches throughout the country including Mayo and Sligo.

Only flush the 3 P's

As Clean Coasts recently said ''Our message is simple, only the 3 Ps - pee, poo and paper - should be flushed down the toilet.'' But everyday thousands of wipes, cotton buds, sanitary products and other unsuitable items are flushed down toilets in Ireland instead of being put in the bin. This causes costly blockages in our wastewater systems, ultimately leading to sewer overflows and plastic pollution in rivers, on beaches and in the ocean. In a year when everyone has become obsessed with hand sanitisers and antibacterial wipes, it is little wonder we are being asked to stop using our toilet as our nearest bin; particularly when it comes to flushing of wipes.

Each year thousands of tonnes of solid waste including wipes, cotton buds, sanitary products and other unsuitable items are taken from wastewater treatment plants in Ireland for disposal. This solid waste is removed by large screens at the beginning of the wastewater treatment process. 

Unfortunately however some of this waste does not reach the local wastewater treatment plant for removal and disposal and ends up getting into our rivers and seas. 

Why is this needed?

Generally wastewater treatment plants in Ireland have a primary discharge point which safely releases treated water back into the environment; back into our rivers and/ or sea. However there can be other discharge points along a sewer network known as storm water overflows, which may release untreated wastewater into the sea or river especially during periods of high intensity rains and/ or high volumes of rains. This untreated waste water is diluted by rain water in the combined sewer network, and must go somewhere. Generally the receiving water bodies can cope with it. However, when the untreated wastewater contains other materials such as wipes, plastics, cotton buds and sanitary products it is this waste which can end up on our beaches and shorelines. 

Michael Breen from the Tidy Towns Committee in Enniscrone is all too familiar with this issue. Michael can be seen on a daily basis walking Enniscrone beach picking up all sorts of litter. Michael said ''This year has been particularly hard with the number of storms we have encountered since January. The quantity of litter I am encountering on a daily basis has increased and the type of litter which is most difficult to manage is shards of plastic. 

''Plastic is now breaking up into small fragments which are near impossible to pick up. Marine litter as well as sanitary litter, plastic gloves and hand wipes are also becoming more evident along the beach.''

Heed the TBYF campaign

Michael is asking us all to please keep Enniscrone beach clean. Michael added ''I would ask people to enjoy the beach but to also respect it and to consider other users especially children who play in the sand. I would also ask people to bring home all their litter and to participate in coastal clean ups. People should be aware that items other than the 3 P’s should never be flushed down toilets – we don’t want those items on our beach. People should heed the Think Before You Flush campaign.''

The Think Before You Flush public awareness campaign aims to highlight the problems sanitary items can cause in the marine environment and wastewater systems if flushed down the toilet. The campaign is operated by An Taisce’s Clean Coasts programme and is supported by Irish Water. The Think Before You Flush campaign invites everyone to help in making small changes in your bathroom behaviour like never using the toilet to dispose of wipes, cotton pads and other sanitary products. For more information visit the Think Before You Flush page.

2 minute beach clean

An Taisce’s Clean Coasts programme also runs the 2 minute beach clean noting that ‘Making a difference only takes 2 minutes!’ So if you feel you want to help in keeping your local beach or seashore clean why not get involved and take part in your own 2 minute beach clean. It is only when you start to look closely that you will be amazed at all the litter you will find. Lily, James and Anna Creighton recently took to their local seashore (while following HSE COVID-19 advice) and were surprised at all they found. Their mother Mary O’Hara, Scientist with Irish Water said ''Every time I go to the beach and sea shore I see more and more evidence of marine litter. Clean Coasts 2 minute beach clean is empowering as it is something everyone can do to help. It also reinforces the importance of taking individual responsibility in caring for our natural environment and reminding children that every piece of litter removed from the marine environment is a piece of litter that won’t pollute our oceans or be ingested by marine life."

Mayo, Sligo

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