Flushable wipes snarling sewage systems cost ratepayers

Items that are labeled ‘flushable’ don’t necessarily break down like toilet paper. Sarah Cooke, water/wastewater compliance coordinator at the Smiths Falls water/wastewater treatment plant holds a jar containing a ‘flushable’ wipe that has remained intact even though it’s been soaking in water since April 2015.
Posted on: October 25, 2016

By Howaida Sorour-Roberts
heddy@pdgmedia.ca

The mantra “toilets are not garbage cans” is sweeping across the country from sea to sea, and its authors are the wastewater treatment plant operators who are forced to unclog putrid sewage blockages caused by materials that should never be flushed down the loo.

“The time of travel through the sewer system is three hours, so if it doesn’t break down in that length of time it’ll end up clogging the system,” said Ted Joynt, superintendent of utilities, Smiths Falls.

Among the worst offenders when it comes to snarling up water treatment plant equipment are wipes – flushable or disposable.

“They clog up the pumps, get tangled around air-lines and get caught on the bar screens,” said Sarah Cooke, water/wastewater compliance coordinator, who was one of the first people to bring attention to the issue in 2010.

According to Barry Orr, City of London environmental and engineering services, and spokesperson for the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group (MESUG) and international consultant. “The only things sewage systems are designed to handle are human waste and toilet paper, anything else belongs in the garbage,” said Orr in an interview.

Just because a product says it’s flushable doesn’t mean it should go down the toilet. “The term flushable on all these products is misleading,” said Cooke, “It just means that it will go down the toilet, but it can cause severe backups. Just because you’ve flushed it doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there.”

Essentially all wipes are culprits, whether baby wipes, facial wipes, cleaning wipes and even paper towels and facial tissues.

There are many other products that also cause headaches for water treatment operators. A perfect example is soluble cat litter, which doesn’t actually dissolve though it’s particles are small enough to flush down the toilet very nicely. In fact it just sinks to the bottom of pipes, eventually filling them up and causing sewage backups in the home.

“A blockage inside the home that requires a plumber may cost about $300 to $400 but if the sewer pipe coming into the home gets blocked that can cost up to $10,000, and in nearly all municipalities in Canada, the homeowner is responsible for the infrastructure right up to the road,” said Barry Orr.

Fats, oils and grease (FOGs) are also culprits in snarling sewage systems.

“A pound of bacon produces three quarters of a cup of fat when cooked, if it gets disposed down a drain, it eventually congeals and you can imagine what happens when that sticky mess meets up with all the other items that get flushed into the system,” said Orr.

Right now the Smiths Falls Waste Water Treatment Plant sends about four tonnes of garbage collected from clogged pumps, and bar screens to the landfill every month according to Joynt. Most of it is made up of disposable wipes, paper towels, dental floss, q-tips, condoms and the list goes on.

The MESUG estimates that the cost of unclogging snarled waste water treatment equipment alone is at least $250 million a year in Canada, but on top of that there is the cost of blocked sewage pipes and the incalculable cost to the environment.

In Smiths Falls alone, the sewage lift pump, which sits in a wet-well 60-feet deep, has to be lifted up by crane at least once a year to clear away garbage that has jammed it up, over and above regular maintenance. Smaller pumps have to be unclogged two or three times a year according to Joynt.

“We’ve never tallied up the exact cost, but you’re looking at the cost of the crane, and more than an hour over and above regular maintenance to clear that stuff away with at least two men on the job,” said Joynt.

This is not a new problem but it is a growing problem because more and more ‘flushable’ products are flooding the market and there is confusion regarding what can or can’t go down the toilet. “As I tell everyone, only flush the three Ps – pee, poo and toilet paper,” concluded Cooke.

Photo (main photo) by Howaida Sorour-Roberts: Items that are labeled ‘flushable’ don’t necessarily break down like toilet paper. Sarah Cooke, water/wastewater compliance coordinator at the Smiths Falls water/wastewater treatment plant holds a jar containing a ‘flushable’ wipe that has remained intact even though it’s been soaking in water since April 2015.

sewageliftpump

Photo submitted: The sewage lift pump at the Smiths Falls Wastewater Treatment plant is housed in a wet well that’s 60-feet in the ground. At least once a year it gets snarled on items that should never have been flushed down the toilet.