So-called 'flushable' wipes, paper towels clogging sewer lines

The city of Fairfield's Wastewater Department has published this infographic to educate the public about what can and cannot be flushed down the toilet.
The city of Fairfield's Wastewater Department has published this infographic to educate the public about what can and cannot be flushed down the toilet.

FAIRFIELD – The outbreak of the coronavirus has caused a run on toilet paper at grocery stores across the state and beyond. This has left some residents high and dry and looking for alternatives to the product that they can flush down the toilet.

However, the superintendent of Fairfield’s Wastewater Department Shawn Worley has a message for them: Not so fast! Worley cautions residents that only toilet paper should be flushed down the toilet, and no other kind of wipe or paper product. Even wipes that are marketed as “flushable” wreak havoc on the city’s sewer pipes.

Worley explained that so-called “flushable’ wipes do not break down as quickly as toilet paper, which decomposes so quickly that it doesn’t present a problem when going down even a small pipe. The companies that produce “flushable” wipes are given guidelines about how to make them decompose in water so they don’t clog pipes. The trouble is, Worley said, the rules are so lax that companies are able to make the wipes more durable than they should be.

“The tests they have to pass are so lenient that on a treatment system like we have, or even on a private septic system, the [wipes] won’t break down fast enough,” Worley said. “If there’s any root intrusion into the pipe, even one root coming in, the wipes can hang on it until they plug the pipe.”

Worley said this problem of residents flushing wipes or paper towels down the toilet has been present for years, but it didn’t become acute until just a week or two ago when people started hoarding toilet paper, leaving others to go without. And it’s not just affecting Fairfield, either. He said sewer systems around the country are reporting clogged pipes as a result of their residents flushing things down the toilet that shouldn’t be flushed.

Worley’s advice to the public is that only toilet paper should be thrown in the toilet. Every other paper towel, wipe, and tissue should be thrown in the trash, regardless of whether it says “flushable” on the label.

“Until regulations are more stringent, you should not flush anything other than toilet paper,” he said.

Worley said calls about clogged pipes started to come into the wastewater treatment plant in mid-March. Many of the clogs were on what are called “sewer laterals,” which refers to the portion of the sewer system on private property. The reason these sewer laterals are being clogged is that they’re usually 3 inches wide, compared to a city-owned sewer main, which is 8-12 inches wide.

“We’re hearing about customers who have to call in cleaners to clear their sewer laterals,” Worley said. “We had a pump that was plugged [March 18] that had to be cleared. There’s an abundance of material infiltrating the plant. We’re finding wipes in the sewer mains that are flowing slow, too. We notice it because [the backlog] will start filling manholes because it can’t transfer fluid fast enough.”

The evidence of all these paper towels and wipes going down the drain can be seen at the wastewater treatment plant itself. When sewage enters the plant, it flows through a filter meant to take out inorganic material. Normally, that filter contains a fine mat of decomposed toilet paper.

“That drastically changed last week,” Worley said on March 19. “Within three to five days, we started seeing [paper towels and wipes] at the plant. We have to manually clean [the filter] now more than we normally do, but our main concern is not at the treatment plant, it’s the miles of sewer line that can be compromised, it’s the potential sewer backups not just in the sewer lines but also in sewer laterals that fill people’s basements.”

Residents who sense a problem in their sewer line should call the wastewater treatment plant at (641) 472-5218. If the problem turns out to be in the customer’s sewer lateral, a wastewater employee can direct the customer to private contractors who can help them clean it. If the problem is the result of a clog in a city pipe, then city employees will fix it.

“The biggest thing we want people to remember is that it takes a high amount of public participation to ease the burden on our sanitary sewer system,” Worley said.