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The coronavirus-induced toilet paper shortage is causing people to resort to creative alternatives. These can prove disastrous for sewer systems.
Redding, California has a problem. The mid-size city located at the northern point of the Sacramento Valley recently issued a plea to residents: Please stop flushing shredded t-shirts down the toilet.
In response to the panic-buying of toilet paper associated with the coronavirus pandemic, residents of Redding have been getting creative after being confronted with empty shelves at local stores. The city has seen a rush of wipes, paper towels and, yes, shredded t-shirts, introduced into the sewer system, causing blockages, backups, and major headaches for the wastewater department. Joshua Vandiver, Redding’s wastewater utility manager, said that the problem isn’t isolated to the 433 miles of pipe he manages—it’s a nationwide concern among sewer professionals.
“Nobody can find toilet paper because some people are hoarding,” Vandiver said. “With these alternatives—just because something goes down the toilet does not mean it’s flushable. There’s no way to regulate this because we can’t go into people’s bathrooms and see what they’re flushing. We have to deal with it on the downstream end.”
Both wastewater treatment plants in Redding have noticed a surge in toilet paper alternatives clogging up pipes. Meanwhile, customers are also calling to report slow sewer lines. The 18-person sewer crew has pulled substantial blockages already, and Vandiver fears it might get worse. “The amount of manpower and cost it takes to deal with these things is substantial,” he said. “People complain about the cost of their sewer bill. This is the reason why.”
Remember, Bag It, Don’t Flush It. Wastewater Management continues to respond to sewer backups as a result of items other than toilet paper being flushed down the toilet, including “flushable” wipes which are not in fact flushable. pic.twitter.com/RhzLPOdOI0— City of Redding (@cityofredding) March 27, 2020
Dealing with the problems associated with non-flushable items can be costly and time-consuming at a time when city leaders are focused on critical problems like overwhelmed public health systems and shuttered schools. But Vandiver and other wastewater managers have said that one positive is the free publicity they are getting against sewer systems’ public enemy number one: flushable wipes.
“‘Flushable wipes’ is a deceptive name,” said Johnny Ziem, the wastewater manager of Jackson, Wyoming. “By the simple definition of ‘will it fit down my toilet?’ my iPhone is flushable. Half a ruler is flushable. Socks are flushable. Just because something is ‘flushable’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause problems.”
For years, Ziem has been working on a campaign to get companies to remove the word “flushable” from wipes packaging. In fact, those moist wipes typically marketed as compatible with sewer systems don’t break down in pipes the same way toilet paper does, he said.
Industry groups and “flushable” wipes manufacturers vehemently deny that their wipes cause blockages, instead placing the blame for most backups on “non-flushable” baby wipes and menstrual hygiene products. In a statement on the website of Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Cottonelle, Scott, and Huggies wipes, the manufacturer said that their wipes “exceed the requirements of widely accepted industry guidelines for flushability and will clear properly functioning toilets and drain-lines, and are compatible with sewers, pumps, and septic and municipal treatment systems.”
But sanitation officials say that unlike toilet paper, wipes have synthetic fibers made from cellulose that, when flushed into the sewer system, create long strands similar to dental floss that can jam up machinery. Wipes also accumulate in clumps that can block central pipes, catch inside pumps at wastewater lift stations and clog the sewer lines that lead to individual homes.
For all those reasons, wipes are the bane of many wastewater managers’ existences. “We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on what it costs to do all the repairs associated with wipe damage,” said Tonya Christoffersen, the general manager of the Lake Stevens Sewer District, which is just north of Seattle. With more people turning to wipes right now, she said that her district is cleaning their pumps on a monthly basis instead of the usual schedule of every six months—and some pumps are getting cleaned daily to ensure that toilet paper alternatives don’t clog the system. “Nobody likes to think they’re part of the problem. But it’s not just one wipe. It’s the volume from all these households.”
Christoffersen said that, normally, her district offers tours of the sewage treatment plant to educate the public about the dangers of flushing wipes and will directly call houses in “hotspot areas” for blockages. But with the shelves at most grocery stores cleared of toilet paper, the problem could soon become too widespread for targeted messages or in-depth education efforts. “Now is the time to beg,” she said. “We have to show people the pictures of blockages. We have to go as public as we possibly can.”
Washington state has some advantages over other states thanks to legislation signed into law last week that will require companies to affix the label ‘Do Not Flush’ to products like face, baby, and disinfectant wipes. Judi Gladstone, the executive director of the Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts, said that the legislation doesn’t cover so-called “flushable” wipes, but it’s a good first step. “We’re starting with makeup and cleaning wipes,” said Gladstone. “Those alone are causing a lot of overflow. Wipe clogs are a magnet for grease and other things.”
When junk accumulates in pipes, it doesn’t just cause problems for infrastructure, Gladstone said. Clogs can also be environmentally destructive when they spill out onto beaches—as happened in Seattle in June of last year, when 165,000 gallons of sewage cascaded out of a pipe blocked by wipes. In Redding, Vandiver said he was afraid a similar blockage could cause a medical crisis if sewage backs up into people’s homes, potentially spreading the wastewater of someone infected with Covid-19. The CDC does note that “at this time, the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through sewerage systems is thought to be low.”
Wastewater managers also warned that they are only responsible for so much. The sewer line that connects an individual home to the main line is the responsibility of the homeowner in most places. An overflow in a home toilet might in fact be an accumulation of material that hasn’t made it out to central infrastructure—meaning the cost of fixing the problem would fall directly on those responsible for the blockage. “This is an opportunity to drive home personal responsibility for sewers,” Gladstone said. “Our society is very privileged. People don’t think about the sewers here like they do in European countries where they keep cans next to the bathroom for toilet paper. We need that respect for the system here.”
In Wyoming, Ziem said that the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that most people have about flushing is too ingrained in American culture to change overnight. Now, he’s most concerned about “the unknown,” like the t-shirts in Redding. His department is now trying to “stay ahead of the game” before the problems with toilet paper alternatives get too excessive. The utility districts in his county put an ad in the local paper and are using door hangers and mailers to educate people on what can be safely flushed. Normally, Ziem said he would put ads in local movie theaters, but during a time when theaters are closed, he bought ad space on YouTube instead. He hopes to hammer home one simple message: Think before you flush. “Your toilet is not a trash can,” Ziem said. “I’m scared of the imagination of somebody who runs out of toilet paper.”
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