Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Be Careful What You Flush

November 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

be careful what you flush 1

Wet wipes, long used for baby care, have grown increasingly popular with adults in recent years. Marketing of flushable wipes as a cleaner, fresher option than dry toilet paper alone has resonated with consumers.

According to the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, pre-moistened wipes are currently a $6 billion-a-year industry, and growing. The product’s rise may be good news for the manufacturers of the wipes, but pretty terrible for wastewater treatment systems.

Wipes may go down the toilet, but even many labeled as “flushable” aren’t breaking down when they initially enter household plumbing, septic, and cesspool systems, or even further along as they travel through municipal sewer systems. In contrast, toilet paper disintegrates almost immediately, but these strong-fiber wipes remain intact and wreak havoc in residences and in wastewater treatment systems.

Blockages from wipes can cause messy issues such as backups into basements and sewage overflows into local waterways. Compounding the problem, wipes can combine with other materials such as congealed grease to create dense blobs that are neither easy nor pleasant to remove. A huge mass of wipes combined with hardened cooking oil roughly the size of a bus was discovered lodged inside a London sewer pipe after residents complained their toilets would not flush.

be careful what you flush 2Unclogging plumbing and septic systems, replacing sewer pumps, and upgrading wastewater treatment machinery can be quite costly for homeowners and municipalities. Hours of wastewater treatment staff time must be diverted from daily plant operations and devoted to removing stuck wipes and repairing broken equipment. Some municipalities are considering installing special grinding systems to shred wipes and other non-flushable debris before they reach pumps and sewage treatment plants.

After a city in the state of Washington spent more than $1 million replacing several sewage pumps that were routinely clogging, a study was conducted to test whether flushable wipes actually disintegrate in water. City sewer employees dyed several kinds of wipes bright colors and sent them through the system for one mile. When the utility workers checked the sewage further down the system, the colorful wipes were still intact and those labeled flushable showed only minor rips and tears.

Assertions that the wipes industry is falsely advertising products as flushable have prompted the Federal Trade Commission to further investigate the validity of the label. Although there is currently no set standard for the term, some advocate for wipes manufacturers found to be using misleading labels taking responsibility for damages their products cause.

The validity of an industry trial designed to gauge disintegration thresholds for wipes marketed as flushable is under debate. Critics say the industry’s self-assessment, termed a “slosh box test,” does not properly simulate the conditions in a wastewater system. The test turbulently rocks wipes back and forth in a crate of water that is unlike the flow through a wastewater pipe, which moves sewage primarily via gravity. Furthermore, at least one-quarter of a wipe agitated in the slosh box must break into pieces small enough to pass through a small sieve within three hours in order for the product to pass the test and be labeled flushable. However, in an actual sewer system, a wipe can travel from a toilet to reach a pump in just a few minutes.
Refining industry standards for how wipes are tested for flush-ability could help solve the problem plaguing wastewater pipes. Wipe manufacturers are beginning to recognize the issue and claim they are working to reduce their products’ impact on septic and sewer systems.

Some environmentalists say the solution is to change product labeling to stop consumers from flushing wipes down the pipes all together. Suggestions include making “Do Not Flush” labels prominent on product packaging and launching public awareness campaigns concerning the importance of properly disposing of all wipes in the trash instead of down the toilet.

Although the label on a package of wet wipes you buy claims it is flushable, biodegradable, or septic-safe, is it worth the risk of clogging your home plumbing and/or fouling up your local water treatment plant? While your plumber may welcome the business, your wallet and your sewer utility urge you to trash it, not flush it!

By Jenn McGivern

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a lifelong resident of Long Island, is passionate about science and the environment and enjoys spending free time doing activities on and near the water including boating, swimming, and hiking.

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