“Flushable” Wipes: Are They Really Flushable?

 In Press, Water Pollution Control

By Drew Wallace, Program Coordinator, Water Pollution Control

They are advertised as “flushable” personal hygiene wipes. While they might make it through your toilet and into the sewer pipe, that is only the beginning of the journey for flushable wipes.

With toilet paper in short supply in the midst of COVID19, many households are increasing their use of flushable wipes, but flushing these items down the toilet is not the best way of disposing of them.

At Auburn’s Water Pollution Control plant, the flushable wipes are one of the leading causes of malfunctioning lift station pumps. Flushing any type of paper towels or wipes down the toilet—even those that are labeled flushable or biodegradable—can lead to sewer backups, treatment plant issues and in-home plumbing clogs.

After wipes enter the sewer system, the water flow will carry them to the lift station. The lift station is an underground pit that pumps the sewage to the next lift station. A stretch of sewer system can have multiple lift station pumping facilities on the way to the waste water treatment plant. These lift stations are on the side of the road and are underground with just an access door at ground level.

These wipes are a material that does not break down like toilet paper. After they get to the pump in the lift station, they get caught on the impeller in the pump and plug it, causing it to overheat and shut down. Each lift station has two pumps, and we have had both pumps fail due to flushable wipes plugging the stations. This can cause sewer backups along this stretch of sewer pipe, affecting all of the neighborhood homes on that stretch of line. Additionally, this could cause sewage to fill up the lift station and over flow onto the ground and street in that neighborhood.

These plugs cause unnecessary damage to the sewer system equipment, and could cause an environmentally-damaging sewage spill—and possibly a heavy fine by a state agency. All of this is preventable with just a few simple actions.

Auburn Water Pollution Control encourages homeowners to use the following tips to avoid sewer clogs and backups:

  • Avoid flushing all paper towels, flushable wipes and Latex gloves. If it is not biodegradable, do not flush it. All of these items should be thrown in the trash instead.
  • Never pour Fats, Oils or Grease, (FOG) down the garbage disposal. Instead, allow it to cool, and use a rubber scraper to remove these items from cookware, plates, utensils and cooking surfaces. Then place the grease in a sealed container, and dispose of it in the trash.

All of these substances will get caught or cool as they leave your sink or toilet and start sticking to the inside walls of your house plumbing and your tap. The tap is the section of pipe from your house to the sewer line. Homeowners are responsible for the tap, and if it gets plugged, the money for that repair comes out of your pocket.

At the Auburn Water Pollution Control plant, we routinely clean and camera our lines. When we camera the lines, we see all of the taps that come into our lines. We have seen taps that are nearly choked off because of FOG build-up.

The plumbing from your house to the waste water treatment plant is not a catch-all.  If you question whether or not an item is flushable, it’s best to just throw it in the trash and prevent a potentially larger problem.

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