Out of toilet paper? Before you reach for wet wipes, paper towels or other creative alternatives, local water officials are warning customers to be careful when throwing something down the porcelain wonder.
That’s because even so-called “flushable” wipes don’t disintegrate like toilet paper when flushed, leading to clogged pipes and sewage backups, officials say. For the past several years, the water utilities of Henry County and Martinsville have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment and untold amounts of staff time dealing with these problems.
“Wipes have been a bad problem lately,” said Mike Ward, director of regulatory compliance for the Henry County Public Service Authority. “Not only in Henry County, also in a lot of other sewer systems throughout the country.”
Nationwide, disposable wipes are a leading cause of sewer overflows, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Problems caused by flushing non-flushable products down the toilet “amount to billions of dollars in maintenance and repair costs — costs which ultimately pass on to the consumer,” according to the NACWA website.
Now, fallout from the pandemic seems to be making the situation worse. News reports show that the shortage of toilet paper has led to an increase in non-flushable items snarling pipes across the U.S. since March, as people turn to options like wet wipes, paper towels, feminine products and even strips of fabric to do their business.
“If you run out, use what you’ve got,” Ward said.
But don’t flush any of those toilet paper alternatives.
“It’s tempting to flush that stuff down the toilet, but just put it in the trash,” he said.
Shortage leads to sewer problems
A little more than three months after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in Virginia, toilet paper has started to reappear on the shelves in Martinsville and Henry County. However, the supply is not back to normal. Many stores still limit the number of packs each customer can buy at once.
Toilet paper has been hard to find since “panic shopping” peaked nationwide during the week that ended March 15. That’s according to IRI, a market data analytics firm that tracks consumer behavior. Sales of toilet tissue that week were up 235.9% compared to normal levels, while alternatives such as moist towelettes were up 251%, and baby wipes were up 197.5%, IRI figures show.
There’s more to the shortage than hoarding, however. Demand for these products has been higher as millions of people stayed home from work and school.
Manufacturer Georgia Pacific estimates the average U.S. household of 2.6 people goes through about 409 rolls of toilet paper a year under normal circumstances. During the COVID-19 outbreak, with families staying home 24/7, the company calculates people are using 40% more tissue than usual. More use also means more potential stress on home plumbing systems.
Many water departments have stepped up their messaging around the risks of flushing wipes in recent months due to COVID-19 concerns. On Twitter, agencies like the California Water Board, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local utilities everywhere from Phoenix to Fairfax are posting reminders using hashtags like #wipesclogpipes and #keepitflushing.
Locally, it’s the same message. Ward said toilet paper is the only item other than human waste that can be safely flushed — no matter what it says on the wipes package.
Mike Kahle, director of water resources for the city of Martinsville, estimated that wipes were to blame for roughly 25% of the city’s sewer backups before the pandemic.
“They might be flushable” in the literal sense, meaning the wipes will physically flush down the toilet, Kahle said, “but they’re not biodegradable. They don’t break down.”
Instead, wipes tend to “stay in sheets and combine with other things and create these clogs as they go along,” he said. “They may not stop up the homeowner’s line, but they do tend to cause trouble down the line.”
This trouble can mean raw sewage bubbling up into the person’s home. If the clog is on the homeowner’s side of the pipes, it means a stinky mess and a pricey repair bill. Ward, who owns rental property, recalled having to pay $400 or $500 to fix a clog caused by a tenant flushing wipes down the toilet. And these backups can also affect nearby homes.
“Often, homeowners who have prohibited items flushed or dropped into their clean-outs end up with unnecessary damages to their home,” said Steve Clary, Henry County PSA superintendent of construction and maintenance. “Likewise, when we have a main blockage that is caused by prohibited items, the financial impact to another customer who is not contributing to the junk in the line can be devastating.”
Farther down the line, the accumulation of wipes, grease, and other non-flushable items can cause expensive damage to pumps and pump controls in the water treatment system.
Big money spent
In Henry County, the PSA had to pay between $40,000 and $70,000 for two new pumps a few years ago “specifically because of these wipes,” Ward said. “In older pumps, you have to open them up once a week to pull wipes out. It causes the whole pump to be out of balance.”
Ultimately, this means more cost for water customers, local officials said.
“If you’ve got a doubt about it, don’t flush it,” Kahle said. “If you flush something and it causes a blockage, it’s expensive, and that money comes from the taxpayer. We try to be smart with their money.”
Flush with success
The war between water utilities and wipe manufacturers developed fairly recently. As sales of disposable wipes have surged across North America and Europe in the 21st century, so have the resulting sewer problems.
The global market for wipes grew rapidly from “an industry that barely existed in the early 1990s,” as a USA Today article stated in 2002, to one worth an estimated $15.8 billion in 2018. Market analysts continue to project billions of dollars of sales growth over the next five years.
Twenty years or so ago, most premoistened wipes on the market were meant to clean babies’ bottoms. Then, the early 2000s saw an explosion of disposable wipe products marketed to adults, to be used for everything from household disinfecting to pet care to bathroom hygiene.
The “flushable” designation first came on the scene for North American products in 2008. The Association of Nonwoven Fabric Industries, a trade group, developed guidelines for testing and labeling wipes as safe for sewer systems.
So far, these standards are largely self-regulated by wet-wipe manufacturers. Under the auspices of the Responsible Flushing Alliance, manufacturers maintain that any wipes claiming to be flushable must have passed “a rigorous set of flushability assessment tests” to make sure they will degrade in municipal sewers. According to the group’s voluntary code of practice, wipes that do not pass these tests should be labeled clearly “Do Not Flush.”
Various government officials and environmental groups, however, have called these claims misleading. The past decade, in particular, has seen numerous attempts to regulate the wipes industry and its packaging through lawsuits or legislation.
Critics say that the wipe industry’s lab testing doesn’t replicate real-life sewer conditions. Consumer Reports tested four major brands of “flushable” wipes in 2013 and found they did not break down, even after 10 minutes in a heavy-duty mixer.
Another study conducted in 2019 by Ontario’s Ryerson University tested 101 single-use wipes in a model of a municipal sewer system. None of them fell apart enough to safely pass through wastewater systems — not even the 23 wipes labeled flushable.
So, what happens if you flush them anyway?
As wipe sales have skyrocketed, municipal water systems are dealing with a new threat: "fatbergs.' The term describes sticky, smelly masses that form when intact wipes and other unflushable items glom onto human waste and congealed grease to form giant sewer blockages.
The problem first got worldwide attention in July 2013 when London sewer officials reported finding a 15-ton fatberg. An even larger one was discovered in September 2017 that weighed as much as 11 double-decker buses.
Getting rid of fatbergs of that size can take weeks. Workers use high-powered jet hoses to break up the masses into smaller chunks and then collect the fat for disposal.
“Fatbergs” tend to be seen in larger city water systems, but smaller versions of these blobs still plague local utilities.
In April, Ward said the county was dealing with one pump station that had “a significant grease issue. We’re trying to dissolve it and break it up. It’s very expensive to hire somebody to come in and clean it out and haul it away for you.”
Toilets are not trash cans
Ward has tracked sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) since 2001, when he first joined the Henry County PSA.
“I was mainly looking at that time for a correlation between overflows due to grease,” another common ingredient in sewer backups, he said. “We soon realized that we had many other items in the sewer, other than or in combination with grease, causing blockages and overflows.”
In 2019, Ward recorded 19 SSOs reported to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Such incidents can release thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the environment. Water utilities track the total gallons spilled as well as the number of gallons that may contaminate surface water.
“Some sewer overflows we’re able to contain on-site, and it doesn’t get to a creek or surface water,” Ward said. “Any spill that gets to surface water, with a moving stream it’s really hard to try and capture anything. You are left with higher bacteria numbers. There’s really not a good way of capturing that and remediating it.”
Some sewage backups and spills are because of natural phenomena. Tree roots, which can invade pipes and cause clogs, are frequently seen on Ward’s spreadsheet of SSO causes over the years. Heavy rains and flooding can also cause overflows.
However, Ward said, 12 of the 19 major incidents in Henry County in 2019 were, at least in part, because of objects that should not have ended up in the sewer in the first place. In 2018, trash, bubble wrap and a stuffed animal were listed among the causes of some of the 16 SSOs in the county. In 2017, 11 out of 19 incidents involved prohibited items like grease, trash, wipes and towels.
“A significant amount of time is spent trying to clear blockages that wouldn’t be nearly as bad as if people wouldn’t put things in the sewer that aren’t supposed to be there,” Ward said.
Local officials say common culprits include wipes, paper towels, feminine products, condoms, rags and other trash that people have attempted to flush. Ward recalled one incident in which someone flushed “whole oranges.”
“The stuff people flush down their toilets is insane,” he said.
In the city water system, Kahle said he has seen a variety of items get flushed, including tennis balls, toys and even a pair of false teeth.
“People do tend to think of toilets as another way to get rid of trash,” Kahle said. “That’s not what it’s for. It can cause all kinds of problems.”
Clary, in his work with the Henry County PSA, recalled a John Deere riding mower seat being pulled out of a manhole a few years ago after it caused a sewer overflow.
“Some of the more interesting items we’ve found in sewer mains are a volleyball net, complete with posts,” Clary said, as well as jewelry, money, drug paraphernalia, children’s toys and deer remains. Clothing items (“mostly undergarments”) have also been found, he said.
PSA crews have found large trash items and construction materials, ranging from cinder blocks to 2x4s, in sewer laterals, Clary said. In one incident, “a trailer park resident built a fire in his backyard, removed the sewer main lid and kicked charred logs into the sewer.”
Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.