As the popularity of flushable wipes has increased, local sewer and septic system problems have, as well.
Long used on babies’ bottoms, the sturdy, moist sheets are now marketed for children and adults as a toilet paper alternative. Packaging often indicates they’re sewer- and septic-safe, but those who work in the wastewater field beg to differ.
“It’s a big topic, a headline of the conferences that you go to with regard to wastewater, since they were introduced, because they’re not like regular [toilet] tissue. They don’t break down,” said Paul LaFond, director of water and wastewater for the city of Schenectady.
On the last Monday in March, a 1.5-cubic-yard Dumpster at the Schenectady Water Pollution Control Facility was piled full of mangled grey wipes and other debris.
“They’re stringy and instead of coming apart, they’ll stretch out and then two, three, four, five, six of them wrap together. It looks like a mop head,” explained Andy Coppola, plant manager at the facility. “Anyplace that stuff can hang up on, it will, and then when one grabs, the next one grabs, the next one grabs, and then you end up with an issue.”
The material is pulled from the waste stream by a bar screen equipped with a giant, mechanical rake. The refuse is plopped on a conveyer belt that drops it into the Dumpster. The receptacle gets filled one to three times a day, and its contents must be trucked to a landfill, Coppola said, noting that the quantity of wipes in the waste stream is increasing annually.
The city of Schenectady has added grinder pumps to all but one of the seven pump stations in its sewer system, to help lessen clogs and pump problems caused by wipes and other things that don’t break down easily in the waste stream.
“They’ve got blades on the impellers so they’ll shred and grind,” explained LaFond.
A recent New York Times article reported that New York City has spent more than $18 million in the past five years fixing equipment problems caused by wipes.
Although he couldn’t put a dollar figure on the damage, John Iannotti, sewer foreman for the city of Amsterdam, said his city has also spent plenty on problems caused by flushable wipes.
Some of the city’s sewer mains are nearly level, and he said wipes often get stuck in them.
“The next thing you know, the main is plugged and we’re shooting the main, trying to open it up, or sometimes you’ve gotta dig,” he said.
When Amsterdam’s sewer department receives an emergency call, there’s a 30 percent chance it’s wipe-related, he estimated.
Rich Foster, owner of Big Willy’s Septic Service in Mariaville, said at least 75 percent of his emergency calls have wipes as the culprit.
“They’re horrible,” he said. “They get stuck in my hose with a vacuum pull on it, so that tells you how bad they are.”
Wipes keep workers at Crisafulli Brothers Plumbing and Heating Contractors Inc. busy, too.
“It keeps us in business. I probably employ at least .75 of a man running around town to unplug toilets and laterals,” said general manager Alan Ayers.
If a homeowner’s septic system has an ejector pump, wipes can tangle in it and burn out the motor, which results in a costly repair, he noted.
Flushable wipes sometimes become entangled in the pump impellers at the city of Saratoga Springs’ sanitary pump stations, said city engineer Tim Wales.
“These flushable wipes are really causing issues for sanitary systems, which has a direct impact on the costs of the taxpayer,” he noted.
He said the problem hasn’t yet reached the point where it would be cost-effective to modify the city’s pump stations.
“But it is noticeable. It increases maintenance frequency a little bit,” he said.
Iannotti said he passes out notices cautioning people to dispose of flushable wipes in the wastebasket, rather than the toilet.
“Don’t believe what you read as far as them being flushable,” he cautioned. “They’re only flushable to get from your line out to the city line.”