Wipes Clog Pipes

By Lake Champlain Committee Staff Scientist Mike Winslow

Wet wipes being cleaned from a pumping station in Australia. Photo: Illawarra Mercury.

Marketing geniuses always search for more ways to separate people from their hard earned money. In recent years they have convinced people that modern toilet paper is insufficient, so we need to buy flushable wipes that cost six times more than toilet paper. As a result, sales of wet wipes have tripled in in the United States since 2003. Unfortunately, the products create havoc for wastewater operators around the world.

The wipes are sometimes marketed as “flushable”. While they can go down the toilet, they do not dissolve in the wastewater system like toilet paper does. Wipes snag on any imperfections in sewer pipes, catch passing debris and congealed grease, and create a ball that can grow to plug the pipe. The resulting congealed masses have been dubbed “fatbergs” by people in the industry.

The problem is not limited to products labelled flushable. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, a Washington based advocacy organization focused on wastewater management, notes that products such as baby wipes, paper towels, and feminine hygiene products that aren’t even labelled as flushable often end up in sewer systems and cause expensive problems for utilities. They have initiated a campaign called “Toilets Are Not Trashcans” with the purpose of reducing the amount of materials inappropriately flushed.

Every city has to deal with this issue. In 2013 London pulled a 15-ton fatberg the size of a city bus out of their sewers. Sydney, Australia removes 500 tons of wipes from their sewers each year at a cost of $8-million. New York City spent $18 million on wipe-related maintenance issues in a five year period. A 2011 survey of wastewater operators in Maine found that 90% had problems with flushable wipes. Towns spent an average of $37,500 each to address the problem. “We were paying $800 per dry pound of wipes”, said Michelle Clements, a spokewoman for the Portland Maine Water District.

Wipes are a major headache for wastewater operators in our region as well. In Burlington pumps at the corner of Pine Street and Lakeside Avenue have to be cleaned weekly due to flushed wipes. Between January and October of 2013 wipes led to pump failure 16 times in the Town of Chazy alone; the town increased their wastewater repair budget by 16% in the next year to account for the damage. Combined sewer overflows in Montpelier and Vergennes have been attributed to wipes clogging pumps or sewer lines.

Flushed wipes can also impact household septic systems too. They can block the line to the tank or block the tank inlet. Sewage then backs up into homes. The wipes can also clog the hoses used for pumping when tanks are emptied.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required one producer, Nice-Pak Products, Inc., to stop advertising their products as “flushable”. Nice-Pak makes Wet-Naps and similar products marketed under in-store labels for Costco, CVS, Target, and other retailers.  This is the first action by any government agency to address what items can be flushed in wastewater systems. The ruling requires manufacturers to provide “competent and reliable scientific evidence” that their products will break down in wastewater systems before the products can be labelled as flushable.

As a result of the FTC ruling, class action lawsuits against manufacturers of flushables have been put on hold. Suits have been filed by municipal wastewater system operators and by consumers who say they were misled by labels suggesting products were flushable that later damaged household plumbing, sewers, and septic systems.

Flushable wipes hit consumers three times: at the checkout counter when they pay exorbitant prices for them, in their tax bills when they have to be cleaned out of the system, and in the environment when the clogs they cause lead to discharge of raw sewage into the environment. Save money and avoid using them. If you do need to use them, they need to be discarded in the trash, not down the toilet. The only things that should ever be flushed are the 3Ps: pee, poop, and toilet paper.

Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is the only bi-state organization solely dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. LCC uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access.

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