Adventures in flushing: Colombia edition

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banoscolombiaWe sanitize happily in the United States.

In fact, we are blessed to not have to pay a lot of attention to our toilets at all. They are there. We flush, or as now in many public locations our toilets self-flush, and we move on.

Arriving in Colombia, I found a whole new toilet world. Here, we are offered signs and warnings in bathrooms throughout the country that paper is not an acceptable depositable possibility.

In public toilets, we are told that anything extraneous to bodily function is strictly prohibited from being flushed. In many restaurant and hotel bathrooms, the same applies.

Soiled toilet paper goes in a provided waste basket next to the toilet.

What?

Believe me, this is a cultural adjustment.

It just doesn’t seem right. If you have grown up flushing and leaving, believing that the infrastructure has got you covered, then readjusting when traveling or living abroad can take some getting used to. And what do you know, Colombia is far from alone in providing separate recepticles for toilet paper.

Where Do I Put the Toilet Paper is a website that breaks down what to expect country by country when traveling worldwide, The site is invaluable. Perusing their flushable country-specific advice, it quickly becomes apparent that the US is in fact far from the norm. Our US toilets and how we expect them to perform may, in fact, be one of the things that set us apart and define us as first-world.

Restroom systems in many other parts of the world can’t deal with what we are throwing at them.

At first, in Colombia, I was unenthusiastic, to put it mildly. Put this where?

And then, just last month, I saw in the New York Times that things are not so rosy even in New York City. The Times piece, Wet Wipes Box Says Flush. New York’s Sewer System Says Don’t, underlines that even the New York sewer system is under siege. Even the most sophisticated sewer systems in the world can’t deal with what we are doing right now, flushing wet wipes. The Times piece speaks of “the latitude of flushability,” sort of the same warning that crops on in slightly different wording on signs next to toilets throughout Colombia. The Times article goes on to mention that the New York City environmental department has begun work on a public awareness campaign concerning the importance of proper wipe disposal: throwing them in the trash.

What do you know; a sort of reverse symbiosis is going on. Colombia may be ahead of the curve.

There might be a benefit to all of us to introducing a trashcan for non-flushable materials next to toilets throughout the US.

I missed wet wipes when I first arrived in Colombia. The US marketing machine has made them indispensable. But the introduction of a commonplace toiletry product without an equal investment in sewer infrastructure is somewhat of a pipe dream. To me, this is the equivalent of saying that plastic bags have no impact on the environment.

Not.

And what do you know: wet wipes have just recently arrived in Colombia.

What?

A country whose sewer system can’t deal with regular toilet paper now wants to flood its pipes with wet wipes?

Are you kidding me?

No, not exactly. The wet wipe manufacturers, jumping on a worldwide bandwagon of profit, simply want us to use their product to increase sales and offer us a modicum more of cleanliness. But in Colombia, for the product once used, the same advice applies. Do not even think of flushing!

Use the caneca!

Dispose in the waste bin provided.

Christopher Burke (17 Posts)

Christopher Burke is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Bogota, Colombia. His cartoons are often in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and are always found at http://www.burkecartoons.com. His observations on daily life in Colombia can be found at http://christopherburkecolombia.wordpress.com.