Pandemic fatbergs: Disposable wipes continue to cause sewer headaches

Coronavirus

(Photo courtesy: Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District)

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CLEVELAND (WJW)– The COVID-19 pandemic sent sales of disposable wipes surging. But that rush to disinfect and toss out cleaning supplies added to an existing problem for sewer systems.

It has local sewer officials reinforcing a familiar refrain: Don’t flush wipes.

“Disposable wipes have been causing issues with plumbing, sewer systems and treatment facilities for years. It’s certainly not new for us.” said John Gonzalez, communication manager for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

(Photo courtesy: Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District)

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported on an increase of so-called fatbergs, masses that form in sewers from wipes and congealed grease or cooking fat, during the pandemic. The story noted flushing wipes were to blame for a spike in sewer backups in Des Moines, Iowa, and said Charleston, South Carolina’s water management agency sued major manufacturers for labeling some wipes as “flushable.”

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies estimated wipes contribute to about $441 million a year in additional operating costs for utilities in the United States, according to a September 2020 report.

Gonzalez said while the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District did not see a huge increase during the pandemic, it does experience buildup from wipes. Fatbergs are rare for NEORSD because its pipes are much larger than in local sewers.

“We know people commonly use toilets as trashcans. That’s a habit and it’s a problem. And as many kinds of wipes are promoted as disposable and flushable, consumers are challenged to know the difference. They flush wipes, toilet paper, tissues, paper towels, all kinds of disposable items they use for cleaning. But the only product safe to flush is toilet paper,” Gonzalez said.

He said wipes, particularly baby wipes and disinfecting wipes, don’t break down like toilet paper and tend to wad up. That causes issues for home plumbing, sewer systems and treatment plant equipment.

“Our main message is simple: Only flush toilet paper and bodily waste. Anything else belongs in the trash.”

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