What not to throw down the drain

Although most households in South Africa have their own septic tank systems and drainage, some (mainly in city centres) still rely on underground sewer systems. Throwing certain items down the drain can block sewer lines and cause massive blockages that cost millions to remove.

The City of Cape Town recently reported that lawnmowers, ovens and sheep heads are some of the bizarre items that get dumped in the sewer systems beneath the city streets. These cause overflows and blockages that cost Capetonians R170-million per year.

Cape Town sewer blockages on the rise

The City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, Xanthea Limberg, says that citizens are abusing the sewers. Daily blockages have risen from 293 per day in 2015/16 to around 330 per day in 2017/18. Garden chairs, car engines and tyres have also been found in the sewers.

“The persistent misuse of the sewer system continues in areas across the metro, causing blockages and overflows which place the health of our environment and communities at risk,” says Limberg. “It also wastes city resources which could rather be used to extend service delivery to our communities,” she adds.

Common waste items found in sewers

General waste items that are not biodegradable or water-soluble should not be flushed or thrown down drains. Nappies, clothes, rope, chip packets, wet wipes, condoms, sanitary pads and similar items should be disposed of in bins rather than in the sewers. Local by-laws make it illegal to flush general litter down the toilet.

One of the main culprits of sewer blockages is cooking oil and household fat. Pouring bacon grease down the drain or frying oil is a bad idea. When the fat cools down, it solidifies and creates massive clumps (called fatbergs) in the sewer tunnels. This congealed mass of fat and oil can only be broken down by hand.

“Residents should rather let grease cool and harden in the pan, and then scrape it along with any food scraps into some newspaper or paper towel and dispose of this in the kitchen bin,” says Limberg. Failing to do so is costing the taxpayer money and putting the city infrastructure at risk.

In general, if it was not meant to go in the toilet, don’t flush it down. If you’re not sure, rather dispose of it in a bin. Residents are paying for their own mistakes when it comes to sewer etiquette.


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