WASHINGTON – Next time you go to toss that flushable wipe in the toilet, you might want to consider a request from your sewer utility: Don’t.
Sewer agencies across the country say the rapidly growing use of pre-moistened personal wipes – used most often by potty-training toddlers and people seeking what’s advertised as a more thorough cleaning than toilet paper – are clogging pipes and jamming pumps.
Utilities struggling with aging infrastructure have wrestled for years with the problem of ragging – when baby wipes, dental floss, paper towels and other items not designed for flushing entangle sewer pumps.
The latest menace, officials say, is that wipes and other products, including pop-off scrubbers on toilet-cleaning wands, are increasingly being marketed as flushable. Even ever-thickening, super-soft toilet paper is worrisome because it takes longer to disintegrate, some say.
Just because you can flush it doesn’t mean you should, said I.J. Hudson, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which handles sewage for 1.8 million residents in Maryland.
The result: Utility officials say crews needed for less preventable sewer maintenance and repairs are being deployed to wipes patrol.
The wipes also contribute to blockages that cause sewage to overflow into streams and back up into basements.
This summer, a 15-ton glob of wipes and hardened cooking grease the size of a bus – and nicknamed Fatberg by the British – was discovered in a London sewer pipe after residents complained of toilets that would not flush.
What constitutes flushable might soon get federal oversight. Officials of the wastewater industry and wipe manufacturers say the Federal Trade Commission recently asked for data as part of an investigation into the flushable label.
Wipe manufacturers say they are trying to reduce wear and tear on sewer systems and septic tanks. A trade group, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, is forming a technical work group with utility officials to sort through differences over how wipes should be tested for flushability and how quickly they should be required to break apart.
Dave Rousse, president of the fabrics group, said the primary problem lies with people flushing products not advertised or designed for toilets.
We all agree the solution to the problem is to reduce the burden on wastewater treatment systems, Rousse said. We agree we need to label products appropriately and educate the public to flush responsibly – to look for and obey disposal instructions.
Utility officials say they need to solve their differences soon. Consumer wipes sales are predicted to grow by about 6 percent annually for the next five years, Rousse said.