standard Toilet Trauma and Glorious Pipes: Where does your waste go?

Durham Geography postgraduate student Libby Ferns looks at the importance of pipes to transferring waste water and how to prevent waste from entering our streets and rivers. This is part of a series of posts on urban diffuse pollution awareness.  Libby was one of a number of students from Durham University selected for the Environment Agency’s Pollution Challenge that showcases the best and innovative ideas from students, academics and industry on tackling the problem of urban diffuse pollution in the UK.

waste treatment

Have you ever wondered what occurs when you flush your toilet?

Or where your shampoo and bathwater goes?

Why don’t we go and follow it!?

When things go right, our wastewater enters this fantastic system of pipes and machines.

Our poop is separated, swooshed around, beaten to a pulp, twirled again, until eventually something useful is made out of it.  Gas for heating things, and sludge that can perhaps be used to fertilise plants (or at least be easily got rid of!) Pipes ensure that nothing horrible is oozed into our rivers and green spaces.  And if you need any more convincing about the importance of pipes, imagine what it would have been like to live in the Tudor period, or in fact, at any time up until the Victorian era.  Back then poop filled the streets and rivers. It was so smelly and dirty in cities that Victorians often died because they got sick from the filthiness.  We are lucky to have our pipes.


A typical Victorian street, where much waste was disposed of in the street or straight into rivers. Credit: Beverly Curl


Faraday, pictured left, was one of the first people to complain about, and test, the water quality of the River Thames. He described it as a “fermenting sewer” at that time.

But the problem is not all pipes take our waste away to be treated.  Some pipes go in the completely wrong direction for poop: they still take water directly to our rivers!  If we connect our toilet and showers and washing machines to these pipes, our environment becomes dirty.  Wildlife such as fish, birds and otters can be harmed.

Yes. I am afraid too often it is the case that your number ones and number twos end up in a river!


Yes, sometimes our pipes are set up wrong.

But you reader can help! It is so simple to check that your poop is going to where it should be (towards sewage treatment plants!).

1. You can check how likely you are to be contributing to urban diffuse pollution by typing your postcode in here:

2. You can look at the outside of your house to see if your pipes are right! Look at the pipes that come from your bathroom. Then, look at the pipes that come from your gutters. If your bathroom pipes do not, at any point, attach to your gutter pipes, then all is well!

3. Next look at where pipes come from your kitchen. Water from these pipes should not empty into any open grilles where the pipes from your gutters also empty, or where water from paved areas drain.

pipe1Your pipes SHOULDN’T look like this.



If it appears that your rainwater and bathroom and kitchen drains are separate, WELL DONE.

Your drains aren’t contributing to urban diffuse pollution. If your pipes don’t look right, it should be simple to fix. It’s time to get the plumber in!

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