An unflushable situation

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer September 27, 2013 08:23 pm

A unidentified clump of materials not meant to be flushed down toilets clogged a Brookings sewage pipe earlier this year.
 

If it didn’t come out of your body, it doesn’t belong in the potty.

“Water, bodily fluids and toilet paper — period,” said Brookings wastewater treatment plant manager Ray Page. “I’ve seen stuff that made me go, ‘eww,’ and I’ve been doing this for quite awhile.”a

 

But he and his cohort at the Harbor Sanitation District, Rob Partridge, deal with that ‘eww’ every week. And they would like it if people were more aware of how what they put in the toilet or down the kitchen sink affects public infrastructure.

“Some of the stuff I’ve pulled out … I’ve never positively identified,” Partridge said. “And it’s an increasingly difficult problem.”

Not just in Brookings, and not just in the United States.

Sewer employees in London recently extracted a 15-ton wad of material — the size of a school bus — consisting of debris people flush down the toilet and pour into sinks. A memorable one in Brookings was in a 3-inch pipe that had been reduced to a half-inch by items clogging its flow.

In the current germ-phobic society of America, what’s causing the most problems, Page said, are sanitary and baby wipes — even pre-moistened towelettes offered at grocery stores — clogging city sewer pipes.

“Whole washable wipes,” Page said. “Swiffer dust wipes. Feminine products. Things advertised as flushable but really shouldn’t be. There’ve been things that resemble those potty-pads people put down for their animals.”

He can’t tell, because once a toilet is flushed, the contents flow into sewer pipes and into a pump that spins the material around, forcing water and biodegradable material into a treatment area, much in the same way a washing machine eliminates its dirty water.

But the non-flushable items — indistinguishable from their flushable counterparts — are virtually impossible to even tear, and clump together in tightly knotted masses. And much of the blame could be cast on the hurried lifestyles of today’s society and that people just don’t know how a seemingly innocuous piece of paper can muck things up later.

“These things don’t break down,” Partridge said of many disposable wipes. “Our systems were designed years ago. It would be a different story if these systems were designed to handle these kinds of products. It’s to the point where we’re pulling the pumps once or twice a week.”

That work takes about an hour — for a simple problem, he said.

Officials at the National Association of Clean Water agencies have been hearing these complaints for about four years — curiously about the same time marketing of “flushable cleansing cloths” began being touted as “cleaner, fresher” options than dry toilet paper.

It’s a $6 billion a year industry that’s growing at a rate of 7 percent a year, too.

Not all disposable wipes are created equal, either, Partridge added. Some can be flushed down the toilet, as they disintegrate in their journey to the plant. But once they’re at the pump, they’re impossible to tell apart.

“At first, we thought someone had cut bedsheets or something,” Partridge said. “We went online and saw pictures of the same thing.”

It wasn’t bedsheets.

It gets worse, the two plant managers agreed.

Add some kitchen grease or cooking oil — those act like glue — and the mixture congeals into an even bigger mess.

Up the pipe

Tracing the material to its source isn’t easy, even with cameras designed to snake their way through yards of pipes.

“We were sleuthing, to a narrow section of pipe,” Page said of a problem experienced with baby wipes. “We’re 99 percent sure it was a specific house, but I don’t know if the people were notified.”

We might live in a disposable society, but he wishes people would use the trash can more often.

“I don’t see a problem with putting used wipes in the trash,” he said. “People put disposable diapers in the trash can.”

Grease and oil can be poured into metal cans or glass jars, allowed to cool or congeal and disposed of in regular trash, further eliminating problems down the sewer line.

“If it doesn’t stop, we’re looking at higher rates,” Partridge said. “It could cause sewer backups, plugs, the potential for overflows, potential back-ups into houses. If I have a clogged pump, we could have a spill. That could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.”

The masses also cause the pumps to fail — and replacing even the smallest ones cost at least $7,000.

Partridge said he hasn’t had a problem in the past few days — so he’s waiting for it to happen.

“This is something nobody wants to talk about it: flush and forget,” he said. “As long as it’s going down the drain and rates aren’t increasing, no one really thinks about it anymore.”