Some wastewater utilities say they are facing a nasty pandemic problem: More disposable wipes being flushed down toilets are clogging pipes, jamming pumps and sending raw sewage into homes and waterways.
Utilities have urged customers for years to ignore “flushable” labels on increasingly popular, premoistened wipes used by nursing home staffs, potty-training toddlers and people who shun toilet paper. But some utilities say their wipe woes significantly worsened a year ago during a pandemic-induced toilet paper shortage, and have yet to let up.
They say some customers who resorted to baby wipes and “personal hygiene” wipes appear to have stuck with them long after toilet paper returned to store shelves. Another theory: People who wouldn’t take wipes to the office are using more while working from home.
More disinfectant wipes also are getting improperly flushed, utilities say, as people sanitize counters and doorknobs. Paper masks and latex gloves tossed into toilets and washed into storm drains also are jamming sewer equipment and littering rivers.
At WSSC Water, which serves 1.8 million residents in the Maryland suburbs, workers at its largest wastewater pumping station removed about 700 tons of wipes last year — a 100-ton jump over 2019.
“It started last March and really hasn’t eased up since,” said WSSC Water spokeswoman Lyn Riggins.
Utilities say the wipes twist into ropy wads, either in a home’s sewer pipe or miles down the line. They then congeal with grease and other cooking fats improperly sent down drains to form sometimes massive “fatbergs” that block pumps and pipes, sending sewage backing up into basements and overflowing into streams. On Wednesday, WSSC Water said 10,200 gallons of untreated sewage reached a creek in Silver Spring after an estimated 160 pounds of wipes plugged a pipe.
You’ve seen the gross sewer-blocking fatberg pics? Here’s how government, industry and shoppers can all help stop wet wipes clogging our drains and oceans.
Fatbergs – those revolting sewer mountains made of wet wipes, grease and other gunk – have been cropping up all over the place in the past year or so, from London and Cardiff to Staffordshire and Devon.
As well as causing trouble in wastewater systems, wipes can find their way into oceans. Along with other types of plastic pollution, they can cause long-term problems for sea creatures and the marine environment.
Wet wipes made up more than 90% of the material causing sewer blockages that Water UK investigated in 2017
Friends of the Earth commissioned a report from research group Eunomia, Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution [PDF]. This reveals our everyday habits that result in all sorts of plastics getting into our seas. Sometimes from seemingly unlikely sources, such as medical wet wipes.