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The problem with wipes in pipes

April 28th, 2014 8:31 am by Gary B. Gray

The problem with wipes in pipes

Material removed from a wastewater pumping station. (Photo contributed by the City of Johnson City)

Flushable toilet wipes are becoming a problem in Johnson City.

The wipes, though quickly growing in popularity, are clogging sewer pipes. Water and Sewer Director Tom Witherspoon said there is a concerted effort under way to bring together the water/sewer industry and the manufacturer of these products to educate people about the consequences of not properly disposing of them.

“We’re having to deal with customers putting stuff down their toilets that were never intended to be in the piping system,” he said. “The problem has been mainly with flushable baby wipes. Some are meant for the toilet; some are meant for the garbage can. I know it sounds kind of funny, but people need to remember the three Ps: pee, poop and paper. If it doesn’t fall into one of these categories, you probably need to put in the garbage.”

Flushable wipes are advertised as a cleaner, fresher option or to dry toilet paper alone. But, flushable cleansing cloths are being blamed for clogging sewer systems, not only in Johnson City, but nationwide.

Filtering systems help cut down on clogs, but debris can get caught up anywhere between the plant and your house. The stringy stuff is getting caught in the collecting, or screening, devices that protect the pumps.

Manufacturers insist wipes labeled flushable are not the problem, pointing instead to things like paper towels, feminine hygiene products and baby wipes clearly marked as non-flushable. However, the problem still exists, and if it is not remedied soon, leaders in Washington, D.C., will be hearing about it.

“It’s a growing industry problem,” he said. “If it continues, you’ll see the wastewater industry try to legislate these products. We’ve had to go through the process of cleaning the entryways of two pumping stations. The material gathers together and ends up as very stringy. We had to go upstream and try to identify the source. We felt like an adult nursing home on the south side was contributing to the problem, and we asked them to try not to put those materials in the toilets.”

The wastewater industry and the product manufacturers have formed a joint task force to address the problem, and the topic is discussed with regularity at conferences and meetings, Witherspoon said.
“These wipes do eventually make their way to wastewater plants, and most of that gets screened before it gets there, but they also get hung up on bits and pieces of tree limbs, grass and other organic materials upstream,” he said. “We have obtained a lot of information on the products, and we’ve hung that information on the doors of residences throughout the city.”

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