Increasingly clogged sewers attributed to popular ‘flushable’ wipes

Blockages in sewers have become an expensive problem for authorities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as clogged sewers are becoming more and more common around the country. Sewage authorities attribute the obstructions to the moistened wipes that are becoming popular as a replacement for toilet paper and for other household purposes. The manufacturers claim that their products disintegrate in sewers:

Utility officials say that one of the manufacturers’ key tests for wipes marketed as “flushable” does not simulate conditions in real-life sewer systems. The “slosh box” test requires that at least one-quarter of a wipe agitated in water be broken into pieces small enough to pass through a small sieve within three hours. However, utility officials say wipes can reach a pump within a couple of minutes. Moreover, many sewer systems, including the [Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s], move sewage primarily via gravity and are not nearly as hard on the wipes as the agitation test, utility officials say.

Manufacturers disagree, saying their newly streamlined tests ensure that wipes marketed as “flushable” are safe for sewer and septic systems.

“The industry has spent an incredible amount of time developing its test methods based on scientific evidence,” said Kim Babusik, a vice president for Nice-Pak, which manufactures flushable and non-flushable wipes for Costco, Target, CVS and other retailers.

Utility officials say they need to solve their differences soon. The wipes industry, catering to consumer demand for convenient personal and household cleaning products, is booming. In 2012, “tissue” wipes marketed as “flushable” accounted for about 14 percent of the $4 billion “pre-moistened”-wipes market, Rousse said. Consumer wipes sales are predicted to grow by about 6 percent annually for the next five years, he said.

Katherine Shaver

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has spent more than $1 million on equipment to shred the materials. Other sewage agencies around the country are also working hard to solve the problem:

The problem got so bad in [Bemus Point, N.Y.] 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. . . .

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 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.

Clogging problems in Waukesha, Wis., prompted the sewer authority there to create a “Keep Wipes out of Pipes” flier. And Ocean City, Md., and Sitka, Alaska, are among cities that have also publicly asked residents not to flush wipes, regardless of whether they are labeled flushable.

The problem got worldwide attention in July when London sewer officials reported removing a 15-ton “bus-sized lump” of wrongly flushed grease and wet wipes, dubbed the “fatberg.”

Associated Press

Sewage authorities generally recommend that people not flush products other than toilet paper.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.

local

Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local

local

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters