Taiwan's blush over no-flush habit

About 80 to 90 per cent of Taiwanese throw used toilet paper into the bin instead of flushing it down the toilet. Now, government officials are embarking on a campaign to get people to kick the habit.
Public-restroom cleaners in Taiwan, who have had to tolerate the stench of soiled toilet paper in bins, may soon enjoy some relief as officials embark on a campaign to get people to flush away their toilet paper.
Public-restroom cleaners in Taiwan, who have had to tolerate the stench of soiled toilet paper in bins, may soon enjoy some relief as officials embark on a campaign to get people to flush away their toilet paper.ST PHOTO: JERMYN CHOW

Officials trying to get people to flush away soiled toilet paper and not throw it into waste bins

An old habit is raising a new stink in Taiwan.

Tamkang University student Lin Meng-chang throws his soiled toilet paper into a bin next to the toilet bowl instead of flushing it away. Whether it be at home or in a public restroom, the 24-year-old said he has done so since he was young.

"My parents told me the toilet paper will clog the toilet pipes so it has become a habit... unless there are no bins in the cubicle," said Mr Lin.

The bigger problem is that he is not alone. In fact, 80 to 90 per cent of Taiwanese throw their used toilet paper into waste bins, according to a recent survey by Taiwan's Chinese language United Daily News.

That has government officials concerned. They say bins filled with used toilet paper tarnish Taiwan's image as a clean city.

Opposition Kuomintang lawmaker Lu Shiow-yen questioned why Taiwan is one of the few places in the world where people do not flush their toilet paper down the toilet, adding that it is an indicator of being "less developed".

Besides being an eyesore or creating an unpleasant toilet experience, there are also concerns that smelly bins are a breeding ground for bacteria and bugs.

This comes at a time when Taiwan is welcoming more tourists and its capital Taipei is preparing to host more than 5,000 athletes during the World University Games in August.

So Taiwan's government officials are embarking on a campaign to get people to kick the habit.

From next month, Taiwan's environmental protection officials will be conducting spot checks islandwide to ensure that public-restroom operators put up posters and stickers to remind people to flush away their used toilet paper.

These publicity materials are also aimed at dispelling the perception that Taiwan's drainage pipes cannot take the strain of flushing down toilet paper.

Errant operators who fail to comply will be put on notice and may even be fined between NT$1,200 and NT$6,000 (S$55 and S$275) for not keeping their restrooms hygienic, said Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA).

Besides rolling out public education campaigns, the authorities are also looking to remove all bins from public-restroom cubicles to make it difficult for people to revert to their unhygienic habit.

But it may take some time to allay people's fears. In 2011, the EPA released a report that found the top five brands of toilet paper on the market in Taiwan did not dissolve easily and could cause problems for homes that are not connected to the main sewerage system.

Recent statistics from the Ministry of Interior also found that slightly more than half of Taiwanese households are not linked to the main sewerage network. In bigger cities like Taipei and Taoyuan, about eight in 10 households are linked.

But Mr Chiu Kuo-su, who is a senior technical specialist in the EPA's Environmental Sanitation and Toxic Substance Management department, said the biggest culprits of clogged pipes are actually hair, condoms and sanitary pads.

"We have ensured that most of the toilet paper sold today dissolves a lot easier," he said. "Our assurance is that if you can flush down human waste, (the sewerage system) can definitely handle toilet paper.

"We have to drill it into people's minds so that flushing your toilet paper becomes second nature," added Mr Chiu.

Over the next six months, the EPA is also providing subsidies to smaller cities to improve their plumbing.

It is also planning to spend up to NT$1.2 billion to upgrade and improve the drainage and sewerage systems in some 4,000 public restrooms islandwide over the next four years.

The government's recent moves will be a welcome change for cleaner Kuo Ling-yu, 55, who has been cleaning public restrooms for more than two years.

He said: "Most times, I just close my eyes and quickly clear the bins, but it can get so smelly and dirty with those who have diarrhoea that I get very nauseous and sick."

Retiree David Lo thinks that the government's latest move to clean up public restrooms is a long time coming.

The 62-year-old, who has always flushed away his used toilet paper, said: "It should have been done a long time ago... This is basic decency. How can we claim to be a modern city when we are so backward in our toilet etiquette?"

Mr Terri Cheung, a Hong Konger who moved to Taipei to work as an advertising account manager a year ago, said: "I usually think twice about using the public restrooms here because I don't want to have my face right smack in front of the smelly and dirty bin... but hopefully I will be able to head to any washroom soon."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan's blush over no-flush habit'. Print Edition | Subscribe