Cottage Q&A: Toilet paper and the septic system

A large pile of toilet paper rolls By drsnaut/Shutterstock

Is two-ply toilet paper okay for septic systems?—Terry Venner, Paudash Lake, Ont.

If you’re asking because you feel you should switch to single-ply, or no toilet paper at all, that’s really not necessary. “Two-ply toilet paper is fine for septic systems,” says John Rowse, the executive director of the BC OnSite Sewage Association. Still, it’s good to look at the label, and choose a brand that says “septic safe,” “non-clogging,” or “biodegradable.” 

Even paper treated with aloe vera or other “softening agents” is okay, says Rowse. “As long as they still have the above labels. The only toilet paper we’ve ever really advised against is coloured toilet paper. But I think that disappeared in the ’70s along with shag carpeting. Thankfully.”

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For any cottager collecting TP in the bathroom garbage instead of putting it in the toilet, stop that right now. “That’s very poor practice,” says Rowse. Septic systems—assuming you maintain them properly—are designed to deal with toilet paper. Plus, sending used toilet paper to a landfill isn’t safe from a public health perspective. “When septic tank waste is pumped out by the pumper, it goes to a municipal wastewater plant for treatment to reduce contaminants, bacteria, viruses, and micro-contaminants such as drug residue,” says Rowse. None of this would happen at a landfill, “and we know there is runoff from landfills. So there’s a risk of contaminating groundwater.” 

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If you’re nervous—and you can tolerate the chafing—go ahead and switch to single-ply for the peace of mind. But if you’re using paper that’s taking too long to break down (or using a wildly excessive amount) you’ll probably find out when it’s time to pump out the tank. “The pumper would comment,” says Rowse. “They’d need to use a lot of water to get that paper out. And they’d mumble about it.”

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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