You want me to put my toilet paper where . . . ?

You want me to put my toilet paper where . . . ?

By Paul Collar

 Paul is a hydrogeologist and environmental engineer and the owner/operator of Osa Water Works.  You may reach him at solutions@osawaterworks.com

The signs are in public bathrooms everywhere.  Hand-written, typed out, with graphical icons, misspellings and all:  Put your toilet paper in the trash can, not in the toilet.  Undersized, under-attended toilet paper bins too often overflow as a result, spilling soiled toilet paper onto public bathroom floors.  Ticos have grown up with it, and it’s practically an institution.  In Costa Rica it’s simply what you do with toilet paper.

“But,” objected Marlene Staplebinder, a bright-eyed middle-aged first time visitor hailing from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, eager to adhere to local behavioral norms:  “what about the first wipe on a really messy job?  I’ve had some gastro-intestinal issues on this trip . . .   Shouldn’t I at least put the first one in the toilet?”

“We don’t have so much as a standing army,” I reply on shifting ground, “much less toilet police.”

Setting aside the obvious lesson we learned from our mothers in early childhood of not wastefully over-using toilet paper and thereby risking clogs in toilets and plumbing, there must be a reason why the long-standing prohibition of flushing toilet paper is so prevalent in this nation.  After all, people flush TP in other parts of the world.  Why should Costa Rica be any different?

Let me preface my theory about this fecal matter with a review of why toilet paper should NOT be dropped in waste bins and consigned as solid waste. Medical waste is universally given special waste status and never (a dangerous word, admittedly) disposed of as regular solid waste, and for good reason.  How can excrement-soiled toilet paper be considered any different?  Is it not a bio-hazard?

Giardia lamblia: the prevalent naturally occurring gastroenteric pathogen in Costa Rica. (www.microbiology.ntsinai.on.ca)

Hepatitis-A virus, morphological model (www.healthyone.org
Hepatitis-A virus, morphological model (www.healthyone.org

Vibrio cholerae: scanning electron photomicrograph of the cholera pathogen (www.rki.de)

Lest the kind reader conflate this studied opinion with reactionary over-reach, remember that the human gastrointestinal tract is the warm womb for a plethora of opportunistic pathogens.  Microbes that transmit these diseases include bacteria, protozoa, viruses, and even multicellular organisms like worms.  Fecal-oral is the primary vector of transmission fo a variety of illnesses.  Traveler’s diarrhea, or bacillary dysentery, is the chart-topper in pure numbers, with the Shigella, CampylobacterEscherischia (that’s the “E” in E. coli), and Salmonella genii being the most prevalent bacterial malefactors.  Protozoa cause amoebic dysentery (giardiasis or beaver fever from Giardia lamblia—ubiquitous in surface waters everywhere—as well as its nasty cousin Entamoeba hystolitica.  Viruses include Hepatitis-A and –E.  Fecal-oral also causes typhoid fever, cholera, chlostridium dificile, poliomyelitis, rotavirus, tape (and many other) worms, clyptosporadiasis, rotavirus, cyclosporiasis, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).  Even though Costa Rica, at 8-11 degrees north of the Equator, is most definitely in the tropics, let’s forgo for the sake of editorial parsimony the long list of obscure tropical diseases (like ebola) for which fecal-oral is also a primary transmission vector.

Since even before Cain slew Abel, we humans have avoided contact with our own feces, let alone that of others, for good reason.  So why is it when we have a perfectly good toilet to flush excrement-smeared paper, we drop it in a waste bin instead?  That container must then be touched by human beings during the removal, transportation, and disposal in dumps and landfills,  or as they are called in the developed world, sanitary landfills.  In most of the developing world—Tiquicia included—our dumps are not yet sanitary and have mostly yet to reach the category of even landfill status and are still by all objective measure simply open-air dumps, where the trash is pushed around a bit by bulldozers and picked over by the entrepreneurial indigent community that makes its living off the refuse disposed there.

Juan Barboza Escalante, a native of the Infiernillo neighborhood on the outskirts of Alajuela, defended his vocation:  “I can’t tell you of the minor riches I have harvested here,” he declaimed above the buzz of flies and irritation of a thin acrid pall of smoke rising from scattered fires at the Rincon de la Bolsa landfill.  “I once found a perfectly good woman’s purse with 85 rojos tucked inside and gave the purse as a gift to my suegra, who carries it to this very day!”

“Do you ever come across plastic bags with used toilet paper?” I ask awkwardly, intent on my journalistic mission to the nation’s first ostensible “sanitary” landfill.

“Oh, all the time,” he grins widely.  “I learned in my early days to pass ‘em by.  Rarely can you score even a single aluminum can in toilet trash.  With my bionic eye I can spot them ten meters away and avoid them like the plague (that would be bubonic, which is a flea-borne contagion and completely innocent of transmission through defective sewage management practices).  “We bust on the new kids about the cool things we’ve found in toilet trash, us old-timers chortling as they pick through toilet paper.  Everybody’s gotta learn the ropes on their own,” he tempered his tone.  “It’s a competitive business.”

Though moves are afoot to redress a virtual absence of municipal wastewater treatment plants (which serve 4% of the nation at present at this writing; more on this coming up) Costa Rica depends almost entirely upon single-dwelling septic systems for management of its sewage waste, that and discharge of untreated sewage into rivers.  The debate about whether toilet paper is bad for septic systems of course predates this nation’s adoption of the “no-flush” policy.  The argument against toilet paper in septic systems is that the broken-down fibers present a clogging threat to leach fields where septic effluent is discharged in soils.  The failure of septic systems is nearly always the result of clogging of leach fields and the failure to infiltrate (or ‘perc’) effluent water.  When the water does not drain, the septic tank backs up into the home’s drain pipes, and causes toilets to flush poorly or not at all.  Emergency remediation in such a case is to call the honey wagon in to pump the tank.  This $2-300 fix provides a welcome measure of temporary relief–a few days or weeks of reasonable toilet compliance–until the tank fills up again to foment a renewed toilet rebellion.  Given the importance of not clogging leach fields, it might appear intuitive that toilet paper should perhaps not be flushed.

However, sanitary science has reached a resounding verdict through decades of developed-world, temperate-climate experience that toilet paper, with certain exceptions, is not harmful to properly-designed and built septic systems.  In the tropics, where the kinetics of microbial degradation is on steroids from all the heat and humility, this is even truer.  Biodegradation inside a properly designed and built septic tank results in the accumulation of nominal residual fibers inside the solids at the bottom of the tank itself, entrained with residual solids from the settling and breakdown of excrement, where anaerobic bacteria labor continuously in the full and final conversion of these flocculent organic solids into carbon dioxide, water, and microbial biomass, the latter kept in check by a useful cannibalistic bacterial phenomenon known as endogenous respiration.  In well-designed septic systems, the rate of microbial decomposition of solids equals or exceeds the rate of solids accumulation (with the arguable exception among households with high occupancy of adolescent males) so that not only do solids not portend a threat to the leach fields, but in fact septic tank pumping should never be required—in a properly designed and built septic system.

Some boutique toilet paper brands have chemical softening agents and appeal to a consumer market with tender bungholes and outsized wallets.  Many of these have pleasant pre-use scents, and some even use coloring agents.  Colors and scents in such upscale toilet paper products are aqueous additives that have no effect one way or the other on septic operation.  But the chemical softening agents in these brands have a high lipid content that when biodegraded produces oils and grease.  Since these substances have a density lower than water, they float and are discharged into the leach field, where they adhere to leach field substrate and indeed can promote constriction of intergranular porosity and clogging.  Such brands should be avoided and are not recommended for septic systems  .In Costa Rica, where taxation policy makes all consumer goods costly, many of us tend to buy the cheapest TP on the shelf, and this type of toilet paper just happens to be the most biodegradable option.  It’s a rare win-win-win for the consumer, the environment, and the Republic of Costa Rica.  Common sense being too often an oxymoron if not a paradox, it bears mention that things that should never be flushed include feminine hygiene products, condoms, and filtered cigarette butts:  all buoyant, non-biodegradable, septic  havoc wreakers.   Last but very important on this list is clog removers, Drain-O type products which are primarily sulfuric acid (vitriol) and will kill every beneficial bacterium in your septic tank.  That’s what the plunger is for.  You should never use such products under any circumstances, whether your toilet flushes to a septic system or anywhere else.

Okay, question answered.  Toilet paper is good and we can ignore the signs, right?  Not completely, and that’s where the qualifying “well-designed and built” precedes “septic tank” in previous paragraphs.  Many of this nation’s existing septic systems were not well-designed or notwell built—or both—and many teeter on the edge of failure.

Technically, a conventional, adequately-designed septic system must have a tank capable of storing at a least one full day’s worth of wastewater.  This residence time allows solids to settle to the bottom of the tank rather than be flushed through and into the leach field.  Well-designed systems provide even greater hydraulic residence and more efficient settling.  Superior two-celled tanks use a baffle in the middle of the tank that further increases the settling efficiency in the first cell, and reduces the escape of solids from the second into the leach field.

Beyond proper design and construction, soils must drain adequately and not be constrained by high water levels or impermeable clays:  in tradesman parlance, they have to “perc well.”  In this regard, Costa Rica is largely blessed with soil conditions that are usually favorable for septic operations.  Exceptions include swampy and low coastal settings with high ground water.  Again, the high productivity of bacterial assemblages in the tropical environment is a feature, and septic management is an appropriate technology and well-suited in most cases to routine domestic and even commercial sewage management.  There is nothing wrong with the septic management of sewage in principle, particularly in Costa Rica, though the nation’s reliance upon this technology as national policy pushes the boundaries of the technology’s limits, at least in cities and large towns.

The idea of a society dependent on septic technology as a means of national sewage management policy is to developed-world standards verboten.  For cities, even large towns, the decentralized concentration of septic tanks beneath individual homes becomes unsustainable from simple loading beyond the soil’s carrying capacity.  Look no further than highly overloaded San Jose and the rivers that drain the Central Valley, the Tiribí, María Aguilar Rivera, Torres, and Virillas.  These tributaries of the Tárcoles River—of international crocodilian renown—receive copious amounts of raw sewage day-in day-out plus clandestine industrial discharges of who knows what and are clogged with refuse and deeply impacted, indeed poisoned beyond any reasonable measure. These river channels are deeply incised in gorges carved into the land as a result of the region’s high rate of tectonic uplift, and the environmental impact is cloaked because few ever stray down the deep canyon slopes to take in the sights and smells of the channels at the bottom.

Costa Rica has staked its entry into municipal scale wastewater treatment with Spanish firm Acciona Agua, now building a treatment plant in Los Tajos in La Uruca.  Funding–$45 million for the plant and $350 million for sewerage—is sponsored through a development loan from the nation of Japan.  It is projected to handle the wastewater of one million metropolitan area residents, 65% of the metro population.  Originally projected for completion in May of this year, work was interrupted during the Chinchilla administration, ostensibly in response to objections from La Carpio residents already in conniptions over smells from the local landfill.  The Los Tajos plant is now projected to come online in 2018.

While this is a great start and all middling-sized and larger cities in the nation warrant their own wastewater treatment facilities, the conventional septic system will be for the projected life spans of all you readers the front line of national sewage management.  The diligence of both developers and permitting agencies shall remain vital for basic environmental stewardship and quality of life in this “happiest country in the world” to ensure that all septic systems built now and in the future adhere to best design practices to allow our society the freedom to, among other things, flush toilet paper rather than drop it in a waste bin.   After all, are there waste bins in public toilets at Juan Santamaría International Airport for your soiled TP?

No.  You flush it.

You should be able to do so everywhere.

Paul Collar is an environmental engineer and hydrologist and the owner / operator of Osa Water Works, www.osawaterworks.com.  You may reach him at solutions@osawaterworks.com, 8704-0027.

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