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How to unblock your toilet – and what not to put down it

We explain ways to unclog your toilet and why you should never flush tissues, paper towels or wet wipes.

Last updated: 02 April 2024

Need to know

  • Tissues, paper towels and wet wipes won't break down when flushed and can cause a blockage
  • If you do run out of toilet paper, you can reach for the humble tissue, paper towel or even newspaper, but remember to dispose of them in the garbage
  • If your toilet is blocked, then a plunger is your best friend. If that doesn't work, you'll need a plumber. If you're renting, contact your real estate agent

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us just how tenuous our toilet paper supply chain can be, and you may have even had to resort to alternatives like tissues, baby wipes, paper towels or even newspaper to get you through until normality returned to supermarket shelves.

They all work, of course, but many of us learned the hard way that you can't flush them down the toilet (they're not water soluble) and were left with an expensive plumbing bill.

So what should you do if you're ever caught short again? And if your toilet's already blocked, how can you fix it?

How to unclog a blocked toilet

Reach in yourself (sorry)

To start with, you'll want to try reaching in and dislodging any obstructions in the bowl or S-bend. Yes, it's going to be unpleasant, but it's an unavoidable first step.

Use a plunger

Still blocked? OK, now wash your hands thoroughly, grab your plunger and get to it – plungers aren't expensive, so although you're not going to be using it on a daily basis (we hope) it's handy to have one in the house in case of emergencies. Modern plungers have a bellows-like design and are more effective than the plungers of old, but you'll probably still need to work it up and down a fair bit. If this works, then great – you're back in business. 

Call a plumber

If plunging away has driven you round the bend but ultimately failed to clear the blockage, it might be time to call a professional. Plumbers have a whole range of specialist tools, such as electric eels and other nifty devices, which can make short work of blocked pipes. Plumbers can be expensive, particularly if you need one at short notice and/or in the dead of night, but it's probably money well spent.

If you're an owner-occupier, you can call whichever plumber you like. But if you're renting, then your landlord may have specified which emergency plumber you have to call. This may mean the costs are covered, but it also means that if you don't use that plumber you may be liable for the full cost.

If you don't have a nominated emergency plumber, or if the agent's changed plumbers and hasn't notified you, you can still call a plumber, but you'll most likely need to pay upfront and attempt to recover costs from the agent later. Make sure you keep all receipts and be prepared that you may have an uphill battle on your hands.

What makes toilet paper so special?

Toilet paper has a unique requirement. It needs to safely navigate the array of pipes, bends and subterranean channels between toilet and wastewater treatment plant without causing any blockages, and without the need for human intervention.

Toilet paper needs to be readily water soluble, while still being strong enough to safely do its job. This important characteristic is a key element in our toilet paper tests, and according to Sydney Water, anything that takes longer than a minute to dissolve from when it goes down your toilet can cause problems.

Can you flush paper towels or tissues down the toilet?


It's not just a question of blocking your own toilet – you could affect your neighbours' plumbing too.


Many strata committees are posting their own toilet-flushing guidelines for residents.

No, you can't. In contrast to toilet paper, things like tissues and paper towels are designed to retain their strength as much as possible, especially when wet.

Flush a tissue or paper towel down the toilet and it won't break down, at least not readily, so it's a prime candidate to clog your pipes. 

Can you flush baby wipes, moist towelettes or 'flushable' wipes down the toilet?

No – they're just not that flushable. According to Sydney Water, about 75% of all sewer blockages involve wet wipes, and they have to remove around 500 tonnes of wipes from the sewer system each year.

We've reported widely on this vast problem and as a result manufacturers have 'redesigned' their flushable wipes, claiming they're flushable – but they're not. We've found even the new ones still don't break down readily in the sewer system.

"Just because something is flushable doesn't mean it breaks down," a Sydney Water spokesperson told us in our article on the messy truth about flushable wipes. "Technically, my phone is flushable, but that doesn't mean it should go down the toilet."

Look closely at the wrapping of your toilet paper and you might see a note telling you to finish the job with one of the new, improved flushable wipes. If you do end up using them, be sure to place them in a bin, not down the loo.

What to do if you run out of toilet paper

So the worst has happened and your supply of toilet paper is exhausted. You may be tempted to reach for alternatives: tissues, baby wipes, paper towels or even newspapers. And you absolutely should – but you still shouldn't put them down the toilet.

Take a leaf from one of the many places around the world where people don't flush toilet paper (or anything other than organic matter) down the toilet and add a small lined bin to your bathroom for paper disposal. Just be sure to empty it frequently.

You can also cut old towels into pieces that can be washed and reused, or retrofit a bidet seat or other water-based cleaning option. The point is, don't panic because you still have plenty of options.

What caused the COVID-19 toilet paper shortage?

The early 2020s were truly strange times. Rather than a run on gold we saw a run on toilet paper. This doesn't make a lot of sense, because toilet paper production continued as normal, and no one's rate of consumption increased in light of the pandemic. 

So really the reason people were panic-buying toilet paper is just that they'd heard people were panic-buying toilet paper. What did change though is the location we were using toilet paper – we went from using it both at home and at the workplace, to exclusively at home during lockdowns – and the supply chains for commercial versus domestic are very different. Commercial suppliers actually had a glut, because they had no way to connect to domestic toilet paper retailers.

The good news is, we know what to do now in the advent of another pandemic – grab all the toilet paper you can from work before you're sent home. And remember, the best thing you can do is only buy what you need so there's enough to go around, and also be community-minded in the meantime – if you're well stocked, then share a roll or two with your neighbours if they're running low.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.