The strangest things flushed down the loo in Birmingham and the Black Country – including Dora the Explorer
17th July 2023
Phil Powell thought for a second, chuckled, then said: “Come with me…”
I’d asked what were the strangest things flushed down the loo which had ended up at Severn Trent’s Sewage Treatment Works at Minworth.
The dad-of-two led me into another nearby unit at the sprawling plant and flicked on a light. And there, on a wall, was a long row of lost toy figures dropped down the pan by kiddies over the years.
There was a beaming Dora the Explorer, a couple of Transformers, multiple yellow Minions, plus a very bedraggled looking Action Man and a long-haired Shaggy without his partner Scooby Poo, sorry, I mean Doo.
There was also, bizarrely, a plastic life-sized skull among the wacky collection, all long since cleaned and sterilised after being found by workers over the years.
Senior technician Phil, 64, said: “You’d be amazed what some people have flushed down the toilet that they shouldn’t.
“We have kept just a few of the things we have found over the years to show what we have to deal with sometimes.
“Of course, the only thing that should be flushed down the toilet are the three Ps - pee, paper poo.”
Minworth is Severn Trent’s largest sewage treatment plant, serving a population of 1.75 million people across Birmingham and the Black Country. It treats an average of 6,600 litres of sewage per day, but can see double that during heavy storms.
And sewage is a real family business for Phil, a life-long Aston Villa fan and sports fanatic who has also coached countless youngsters in junior soccer teams over the years.
His late dad Albert first began working at Minworth in 1974 and a then fresh-faced Phil joined seven years later in 1981.
He recalled: “I loved it immediately, Severn Trent has always been such a great company to work for.
“To be honest, I thought I’d only be here a few years but I completed 40 years in 2021 and thought where did all those years go?!”
His son Jordan joined him at Minworth in 2009 and currently works as a technician, while his daughter Dionne was also employed at one time at the plant and his brother, Ian, still works at the depot, also as a technician.
When Phil joined Severn Trent he was employed as what was then known a ‘spare man’, part of a team who could be called on to work on arrange of jobs across the plant but he went on to try most roles at Minworth.
His longevity and experience has also seen him become the unofficial ‘public face’ of the plant. He has starred in TV shows including the Sewer Men, 2019 prime time ITV documentary. His taste of fame saw Phil being recognised in the street – and he was also the target of some playful joshing from friends.
Phil said: “I really enjoyed taking part in that documentary, it was great fun, and was well received.
“I remember when it was being shown on TV one woman in my local pub came up to me and asked for my autograph. But I signed an ‘X’ on a beer mat for her as I just knew my landlord had jokingly put her up for it!”
Over the years Phil has even met celebs to introduce them to in the job he loves. Former Radio One Breakfast Show DJ Chris Moyles travelled to the site for one memorable Red Nose Day challenge, helping clear the ‘rag’ from the system – made up of wet wipes and other materials that should not be flushed.
Phil said: “Chris could come across as quite arrogant to some on his radio show at that time, but he was absolutely lovely with me and the team and he really wanted to help out by clearing the rag.
“It was for radio, so no one would have known if he did or didn’t do it – but he got really stuck in with us.”
As well as celeb visits, the Minworth site has also attracted some SOS calls by frantic members of the public over the years.
“We get occasional phone calls from people who have accidentally lost things down the toilet,” said Phil.
“I remember my boss visited one lady who had called to say she had dropped her engagement ring in the loo. He went to see her at her home – and found it had fallen down the side of the settee.
“In all honesty, there is no way we could ever find something like that if it has gone into the sewers.”
The incredible work that goes on at Minworth is fascinating and still largely unknown to the public.
Sewage comes into the plant from underground pipes and goes through a series of filtration processes, including removing the damaging rag, grit and other objects and material. The waste water then flows to settlement tanks where solids, fats, oils or greases (FOG) is removed before microorganisms get to work tackling impurities like ammonia.
The resulting water is eventually drained into more huge purifying tanks and, after further testing, it is eventually released safely back into the River Tame – less than 24hrs after first arriving as sewage at the plant.
The science behind sewage is something Phil knows all about – but it was not always that way.
“To be honest, I wasn’t a great science fan at school. In fact. My former schoolmates claim I used to lift my desk lid during lessons so I could read the latest Aston Villa programme instead!” he laughed.
“But I’ve loved getting to understand the science here at Severn Trent over the years and seeing how it all works together. It’s something that really fascinates me and I’m happy to talk about it to anyone.”
Phil and wife Barbara have been married for 40 years next June and, as well as being parents to two grown up children, are proud grandparents to two-year-old Isla.
Yet this devoted Sewer Man is not thinking of calling it a day at Minworth any time soon.
“I’ve no plans to retire yet,” Phil said. “I’d really miss the companionship and doing what I do.
“And at least when I’m at work my wife knows where to find me!”