September 23, 2013

Popular bathroom wipes blamed for sewer clogs

The problem is costing some municipalities millions of dollars to dispatch crews to unclog pipes and pumps and to replace and upgrade machinery.

The Associated Press

BEMUS POINT, N.Y. — Increasingly popular bathroom wipes — pre-moistened towelettes that are often advertised as flushable — are being blamed for creating clogs and backups in sewer systems around the nation.

click image to enlarge

In this photograph taken, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in Middlesex, N.J., the label that indicates wipes should not be flushed in a toilet is seen on a box next to baby wipes at the office of Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey. Increasingly popular bathroom wipes, thick, premoistened towelettes that are advertised as flushable, are creating clogs and backups in sewer systems around the nation. The problem has gotten so bad in this upstate New York town that frustrated sewer officials traced the wipes back to specific neighborhoods, and even knocked on doors to break the embarrassing news to residents that they are the source of a costly, unmentionable mess. An industry trade group this month revised its guidelines on which wipes can be flushed, and has come out with a universal stick-figure, do-not-flush symbol to put on packaging. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey, holds up a wipe he flushed through his test toilet in his office. Increasingly popular bathroom wipes – thick, premoistened towelettes that are advertised as flushable – are creating clogs and backups in sewer systems around the nation.

AP

Additional Photos Below

WHAT NOT TO FLUSH

A public awareness campaign by the Orange County Sanitation District in California called "What 2 Flush" emphasizes that the toilet is meant only for the three Ps – pee, poop and toilet paper. It even says facial tissues are too sturdy to be flushed. Among the more unusual items it says people commonly flush that risk causing clogs: cat litter, condoms and dental floss.

A study by the Portland Water District in Maine in 2011 analyzed what was causing clogs in their sewer pipes and came up with this analysis:

42 percent: Paper products, including paper towels

24 percent: Baby wipes

17 percent: Hygiene products, including feminine pads and tampons

8 percent: "Flushable" wipes

Remainder:Other items, including household wipes, cosmetic pads and medical materials.

— The Associated Press

Wastewater authorities say wipes may go down the toilet, but even many labeled flushable aren't breaking down as they course through the sewer system. That's costing some municipalities millions of dollars to dispatch crews to unclog pipes and pumps and to replace and upgrade machinery.

The problem got so bad in this western New York community this summer that sewer officials set up traps — basket strainers in sections of pipe leading to an oft-clogged pump — to figure out which households the wipes were coming from. They mailed letters and then pleaded in person for residents to stop flushing them.

"We could walk right up, knock on the door and say, 'Listen, this problem is coming right from your house,'" said Tom Walsh, senior project coordinator at South & Center Chautauqua Lake Sewer Districts, which was dispatching crews at least once a week to clear a grinder pump that would seize up trying to shred the fibrous wipes.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents 300 wastewater agencies, says it has been hearing complaints about wipes from sewer systems big and small for about the past four years.

That roughly coincides with the ramped-up marketing of the "flushable cleansing cloths" as a cleaner, fresher option than dry toilet paper alone. A trade group says wipes are a $6 billion-a-year industry, with sales of consumer wipes increasing nearly 5 percent a year since 2007 and expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent annually for the next five years.

One popular brand, Cottonelle, has a campaign called "Let's talk about your bum" and ads showing people trying to wash their hair with no water. It ends with the tagline: "You can't clean your hair without water, so why clean your bum that way?"

Manufacturers insist wipes labeled flushable aren't the problem, pointing instead to baby and other cleaning wipes marked as nonflushable that are often being used by adults.

"My team regularly goes sewer diving" to analyze what's causing problems, said Trina McCormick, a senior manager at Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of Cottonelle. "We've seen the majority, 90 percent in fact, are items that are not supposed to be flushed, like paper towels, feminine products or baby wipes."

Wastewater officials agree that wipes, many of which are made from plastic, aren't the only culprits but say their problems have escalated with the wipes market.

Vancouver, Wash., sewer officials say wipes labeled as flushable are a big part of a problem that has caused that city to spend more than $1 million in the last five years replacing three large sewage pumps and eight smaller ones that were routinely clogging.

To prove their point, they dyed several kinds of wipes and sent them through the sewer for a mile to see how they would break up. They didn't.

Those labeled flushable, engineer Frank Dick said, had "a little rips and tears but still they were intact."

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, has also spent more than $1 million over five years installing heavy-duty grinders, while the Orange County, Calif., Sanitation District, in a single year recorded 971 "de-ragging" maintenance calls on 10 pump stations at a cost of $320,000.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

In this Aug. 16, 2013, photo provided by the city of Vancouver (Wash.), Industrial Pretreatment Coordinator Frank Dick poses with flushable wipes that made it through a test to see if they would break down, at the Westside Wasterwater Treatment Plant. Various bathroom wipes were specially dyed and then sent through the sewer system, but instead of dissolving, most wound up intact.

AP

click image to enlarge

Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewer Authority in New Jersey, poses with his test equipment in his office in Middlesex, N.J. Increasingly popular bathroom wipes, thick, premoistened towelettes that are advertised as flushable, are creating clogs and backups in sewer systems around the nation. The problem has gotten so bad in this upstate New York town that frustrated sewer officials traced the wipes back to specific neighborhoods, and even knocked on doors to break the embarrassing news to residents that they are the source of a costly, unmentionable mess.

AP

 


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