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$250 million to unclogg wet wipes from sewers
FluksAqua insights, Utility management, Wastewater Management, Water plant operator, Tagged
A small square of paper towelling is causing big headaches for wastewater systems managers around the world. In Canada, estimates peg the taxpayers’ costs of cleaning up sewage clogs caused by flushed wet wipes at $250 million per year.
The $13.2 billion US (and growing!) wet wipes industry has gone from being a product used to clean babies’ bottoms to an essential item used by adults for any number of purposes, including personal hygiene.
Baby wipes used to go in the garbage with the baby’s dirty diapers, but with more adults using them, the wipes now end up in public waste water systems through the toilet, instead of being taken out with the garbage.
The problem with most wet wipes is the product’s inability to degrade the way toilet tissue does; the result is clogging of sewer system and wastewater treatment plants on a large scale. The blockages can and do cause damage to already stressed pipes, many built when city populations were smaller. The results are sewage backups, overflows, system shutdowns and costly repairs.
FATBERGS CAN SINK WASTEWATER SYSTEMS
The clogs occur because wet wipes gather material as they traverse the sewage system, especially fat and other detritus. Some waste water management plants are investing in special equipment, such as grinders, to clear their pipes because the clogs only get bigger with time.
These clogs cause major blockages to form, like the so-called fatberg that nearly brought down London’s sewers in 2013 and 2014. Staff at the Thames Water authority describe such clogs as fatbergs because of the size and because of the contents – fat globules, wet wipes and other sanitary items – that glue together in large masses and fill the sewers to capacity.
In August 2013, a fatberg the size of a bus was found in London drains; a year later, another fatberg, this one the size of a Boeing airplane, was found in another London neighbourhood. Similar fatbergs have been found in Australia, and they are most common in large cities with huge populations.
Although wastewater managers often deploy staff to destroy fatbergs with hot water, there are signs that costs are increasing. It took London staff three weeks to clear the fatberg of 2013, and a week to clear the fatberg of 2014. Aside from the infrastructure costs for equipment and repairs, there is also a significant investment in human resources.
MILLIONS SPENT ON CLOG-BUSTING
With costs of repairs to sewer pipes ranging in the millions – New York for example has spent almost $18 million dollars in wipe-related equipment repairs alone in the last five years – the damage caused by flushed wet wipes is both expensive and frustrating.
One possible contributor to the issue of wipes being flushed is labeling. Some wipes are labeled flushable, when, in fact, they are not. That is, they may disappear down the toilet easily enough, but they do not disintegrate quickly enough, if at all, as they move through the sewers of cities around the world.
Industry watchers support better labeling to keep consumers from flushing wipes. Costco, for example, has begun labeling its boxes of wet wipes with large stickers saying “do not flush.” Some jurisdictions have also introduced fines against wipes producers to ensure accurate labeling.
LAWSUITS MAY LEAD TO SOLUTION
Litigation is another approach being used to deal with “flushable” wipes. In the United States, one city utility in Minnesota has taken on six producers of wet wipes including Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble. The federal class action lawsuit is looking for $5 million in damages plus a court decision declaring flushable wipes as unsafe for sewers, and is representing cities in California, Colorado, North Carolina and Texas.
It isn’t only cities looking to legal action for change on the wipe front. A homeowner in New York State, with 100 others around the US, has also launched a $5 million class action lawsuit for damages caused by pipe problems, floods, blocked sewers and septic tank issues.
Wastewater managers have identified a number of options to deal with the issue. While it is possible to install grinders at wastewater treatment plants to deal with wipes, these are expensive. Rather than deal with the issue at the end of the process, wastewater managers are recommending dealing with the issue at the source: the development and marketing stages of wipes.
INDUSTRY PUSHES BACK
For example, the industry believes self-regulation is the best approach, as they believe their products are truly flushable. They blame the public for flushing items that simply should not be flushed, like tampons, diapers, dental floss, cotton swabs, condoms, bandages, medicines, kitty litter and food waste, to name a few.
While some companies have already developed wipes that degrade as soon as they hit the water, for some legislators and wastewater plant managers, it’s not enough. Greater attention also needs to be given to the testing processes used in assessing a wipe’s flushability.
Others believe government-imposed regulation coupled with big fines will help reduce the impact of non-flushable wipes flushed into the sewer system.
Wastewater agencies and environmental groups are working together to draw attention to the limitations flushable wipes have for passing through the system, and the problems they inevitably cause.
Most wastewater managers agree the key to dealing with the wet wipe headache is to stop consumers from flushing anything down the toilet except for the three Ps: pee, poop, and paper.
EDUCATING THE CONSUMER
New York’s Environment Department has already started developing an education plan to encourage wipe users to trash their wipes instead of flushing them. In Canada, London Ontario’s Wastewater Treatment Operations has collected statistics to highlight the scope of the issue. They report Canada’s 3,700 wastewater plants spend an average of $80,000 per year for clogs caused by wipes, with some communities spending about $5,000 per clog.
Last month’s planned spill of untreated sewage into the St. Lawrence River is a good example of the challenges faced by aging sewer systems with increased demands and inappropriate disposals. But until more people are aware of the costs – from expensive repairs as well as extended service stoppages – that simple square will continue to cause problems for the public, wastewater managers, and our water systems globally, in both the short and long term.
FluksAqua is an online community dedicated to fostering open discussion on the issues and priorities of water and wastewater management professionals globally. Managing the only website dedicated to sharing information for the primary benefit of the urban water facilities user community, the members of FluksAqua represent organizations and communities who contribute key indicators to measure and compare the performance of networks globally.
Flegenheimer, M. (2015). Wet Wipes Box Says Flush. New York’s Sewer System Says Don’t. The New York Times.
Goodman, L-A. (2013). Waste-water groups join forces against ‘flushable’ wipes. The Star.
Morrison, J. (2015). Wet Wipes Clog Sewer Systems. Chemical & engineering news, 93(19), 24-25.
The Canadian Press (2013). 'Flushable' wipes clogging Canadian sewers, waste-water officials say. CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/flushable-wipes-clogging-canadian-sewers-waste-water-officials-say-1.2430071
Watson, B. (2015). Don't believe the label 'flushable': disposable wipes clog sewers around the world. Guardian sustainable business.