Food, Wipes, Needles and More: Garbage Creates Major Headache for Sewer Systems

flushinggarbageIf it can be flushed without plugging up the toilet, it must be safe to flush. Right?


A growing number of household products — the biggest culprit being the wet wipe — are being flushed down the toilet, never to be seen again. At least until they re-appear at your local sewage treatment center, where these non-degradable wipes cause significant blockage.

In Burlington, VT, the problem has gotten so bad that crews are called in day and night to clear out clogs in the Department of Public Works’ sewer system. On weekends and holidays, these crews work round-the-clock to keep the sewer lines of Vermont’s largest city clog-free.

“The wipes, whether they are flushable or not — hard to discern at that point — knot or ball up with other fibers and plug up pumps,” Tim Grover, chief operator of the city’s main wastewater treatment plant, said.

According to the Burlington Free Press, the use of these wet wipes has risen throughout the last five or six years. Unlike toilet paper, which dissolves and breaks into small pieces when submerged in water, household wet wipes don’t decompose. And the clogs they create require constant attention in order to prevent a more costly problem.

Burlington is far from the only city to experience sewer line woes caused by residents flushing items they shouldn’t be. In 2013, a 15-ton clog of grease and wet wipes emerged in London’s sewer system, a knot the size of a double-decker bus. The toxic clog, nicknamed “fatberg” by sewer crews, took three weeks to remove. Similar problems have been seen in New York and Indianapolis.

And wipes aren’t all that are clogging up Burlington’s wastewater systems. The Burlington Free Press reports that workers have found hypodermic needles, half a Cornish hen and a women’s bra while cleaning out sewer line clogs. It’s also common to find clogs caused by solidified cooking fats, oils and greases that are improperly poured down the kitchen sink rather than thrown in the trash.

To combat the problem — at least on the wet wipes front — the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry are working together to create new labeling guidelines for wet wipe companies.

“We want to make sure that any wipe that calls itself ‘flushable’ will break apart quickly and easily in the sewer system,” said Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs at the NACWA.

Additionally, the two organizations want to see non-flushable wipes labeled with symbols that illustrate they are not to be flushed. Finley says they have designed a symbol showing a stick figure holding a wipe over a toilet covered with a circle and slash.

Ultimately, there’s one thing to take away from all this — your toilet is not your trash can.

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