FORT WAYNE – Just because it fits down the toilet, officials say, doesnt mean it should be called flushable.
Thats the message sewer plant operators across the country are trying to send as they cope with an ever-growing stream of flushable wipes that are clogging sewers, filling filter screens and fouling pumps.
Personal wipes are growing in popularity among parents with infants and potty-training toddlers and with adults who prefer them over toilet paper. Some of them are labeled as flushable, some are not. Also growing in popularity are disinfecting wipes – larger wipes soaked in cleaning products. Most of those are not meant to be flushed.
Regardless of whether theyre meant to be flushed or not, said Brian Robinson, superintendent of Fort Waynes Water Pollution Control Plant, theyre ending up in the sewers and causing problems.
Toilet paper, once you put it in water, breaks down in minutes, Robinson said. I think some of these disinfecting wipes are more sturdy than paper towels.
But if you only flush wipes that are labeled flushable, youre not hurting anyone, right?
I dont think theres a standard for what flushable means, Robinson said.
He is correct: The International Nonwovens and Disposables Association, the trade group for the wipes industry, offers guidelines for what can be labeled flushable, but there is no industry standard or rules. Under the current system, a golf ball could be labeled flushable.
Some wipes are designed to be flushed, while others are not, INDAs website says. For those companies who make flushable wipes, we urge them to adopt our flushability guidelines and test their products in order to substantiate flushable claims. For those making wipes that have a potential to be flushed, even though designed not to be, we encourage them to use our Do Not Flush logo on packaging.
But the urging and encouragement of INDA also doesnt stop people from flushing wipes that are labeled Do Not Flush.
Although they might go down the toilet, that doesnt mean they wont hang up in the bends and turns of the pipes in your home. They can get caught on a tree root that has gotten into a pipe outside. That can slow or completely block a pipe, eventually causing a backup. When wipes reach the lift station, they get caught on the impellers of the pumps, making them less efficient and using more electricity.
How big a problem is it?
The city of Fort Wayne has two full-time employees whose only job is to service the pumps in the citys many lift stations. Most of that work, Robinson said, is pulling pumps and cleaning wipes and other material off the impeller blades.
The pumps at the sewer plant can normally move 20 million gallons a day, but City Utilities John Clark said he has seen them lose up to a half-million gallons a day in capacity due to material on the blades that officials call ragging. They also take more power to run when theyre ragged, which raises the citys electric bill.
(The gunk) just keeps building up and building up, Clark said.
And the material shows up 24 hours a day: The screening system at the sewer plant pulls 20 cubic yards of solids a week out of the sewage before it goes to the digesters. Most of that material, which has to be taken to the landfill, is wipes, officials said.
My concern is the popularity of these disinfecting wipes is going to step up the needs for maintenance even more, Robinson said.
An INDA publication recently forecast 16 percent growth a year over the next four years in the already-booming wipes market.
The Washington Post recently reported that officials in Washington, D.C., spent more than $1 million to install heavy-duty grinders to shred wipes and other debris before they reach pumps, and that a 15-ton glob of wipes and hardened cooking grease the size of a bus was discovered in a London sewer pipe after residents complained of toilets that would not flush.