These wipes, along with other objects that shouldn’t be dumped down sinks or toilets — such as condoms, tampon dispensers, floss and grease — commonly cause sewer pipes and pumps to clog. And they are an increasing problem in Tacoma, city officials say.
Dan Thompson, the division manager of Tacoma’s central wastewater treatment plant, said the hours crew members spend unclogging pipes has increased over the past five years.
He said the clogs might be partly caused by the decreased water flow sewers have seen in the past few years as people use less water. But also to blame: the mentality that “you can treat a toilet like a trash can” and flush anything away, Thompson said.
“There’s 210,000 people in the city,” he said. “If just one threw one wipe into the sewer every day (and) everybody did that, that’s a lot.”
In Tacoma, flushed objects have ranged from something as mundane as wipes to odder items such as toys, clothes, dentures and even money, which Thompson said he’s washed and used in the past.
However, the clogs are costly. Tacoma spends about $250,000 a year unclogging pipes and “de-ragging” pumps, said Michael Slevin, director of Environmental Services.
When caught on sewer pumps, wipes — called “rags” within the waste treatment industry due to their appearance when pulled off the pumps — entangle themselves in the motors of the sewer pumps, accumulating over time and eventually creating a clog.
Cynthia Finley, the director of Regulatory Affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, said that while the “flushable” wipes responsible for much of the clogging aren’t as strong as regular baby wipes, they’re still too strong to break apart in the sewer naturally.
There are no regulations for what can and can’t be labeled as “flushable” in the market, allowing companies that sell wipes to market them in whatever way they see fit. This, Finley said, has caused a lot of “consumer confusion” as to what truly should and shouldn’t be flushed.
“I think most people without clear ‘do not flush’ labeling … don't realize that those things can't be flushed,” Finley said.
NACWA is currently working to create voluntary industry guidelines regarding what’s flushable for major wipe manufacturers in the United States. It hopes to have the guidelines done by early next year.
Tacoma supports the development of national standards, but for now, the city focuses on educating city sewer customers that the foreign objects they put down their pipes cause problems and cost money.
“Ultimately your sewer rates reflect your decisions,” Slevin said. “Your personal decisions and how environmentally friendly you decide to be affects your rates and what you pay on a regular basis.”
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