Householders to be urged to change flushing habits

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Water companies are soon to launch a nationwide campaign against a uniquely unpleasant British habit - putting vast quantities of plastic and rubber materials down the lavatory.

About 2 billion tampons and sanitary towels are flushed down the nation's lavatories each year along with similar quantities of cotton buds and condoms. They do not degrade in sewage works and can slip through filters, ending up on river banks and beaches.

Cotton buds - plastic sticks with cotton wool at each end - are the worst offenders because no screening of final effluent from a sewage works is small enough to block them. A recent survey found that on two badly polluted West Country beaches, 95 per cent of 10,100 sewage related items were cotton buds.

Notices on the packaging warn consumers it is unsafe to poke the buds in their ears to remove wax, but this is why most people buy them. Water companies want manufacturers to print a message asking users not to flush the buds away. The campaign is backed by manufacturers of the products. But, with a budget of only £50,000, it will focus on schools and "opinion formers" rather than mass advertising. No water company has consulted all its customers on the issue.

Dr Norman Lowe, a senior scientist with Welsh Water, leading the campaign, said: ``If people really want to see quick improvements in the water environment then they should stop using lavatories as a dustbin. The British are the worst in Europe in this respect.''