When you need to get rid of something icky, your first reflex may be to flush it down the toilet and forget about it.
But it’s after you pull the lever that it becomes Andy Palmer’s problem. Palmer and his fellow city utility operations workers have the unenviable job of scooping out the stuff that clogs sewer pump stations.
A typical clog they pull out of a pump may include any combination of the usual suspects: baby wipes, paper towels, dental floss and disposable cleaning products, gummed up with fats and grease.
But, increasingly, utility officials nationwide are casting suspicion on a popular product labeled as safe for sewer systems: flushable toilet wipes.
A variety of companies market the premoistened wipes as a superior alternative to toilet paper, especially for the potty-training set.
Industry leaders say products labeled as flushable have passed a series of tests ensuring they break down after being agitated in water. They say it’s conventional wipes, not the flushable kind, that are causing clogs.
But Palmer and many others in the municipal sewer business disagree.
“Obviously, we can’t tell the difference” between the types of wipes, Palmer said. “But if you put toilet paper in a jar and shake it up, it falls apart. You put a flushable wipe in there and it will stay whole.”
Curtis Smalley, a Waco utility official who heads a statewide wastewater organization, said toilet paper and human waste are the only things that should go into a toilet.
“Just because it’s packaged as disposable doesn’t mean it will dissolve,” said Smalley, president of the Water Environmental Association of Texas. “Even some wipes marked as flushable take awhile to dissolve in the sewer system.”
Clogs end up costing wastewater ratepayers because of the costs of unclogging pump stations and replacing worn-out pumps, Smalley said.
Palmer and his co-workers maintain about 60 sewer pump stations around town, cleaning some weekly, others monthly.
The stations pump sewage uphill so it can flow by gravity to the central wastewater plant on the Brazos River.
Cleaning a pump
At a pump station across Lake Shore Drive from the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant Friday, Palmer demonstrated what it takes to clean a pump.
He lifted a pump out of deep well using a tow hook on his truck, then sprayed off debris from the pump with a hose. With a pair of channel locks, he pulled out a wad of debris from the 8-inch-wide interior of the pump and laid it on the ground.
He identified wipes, hair and the disposable cover of a toilet bowl mop in the mess. Most of the material would have come from a nearby apartment complex, he said.
Palmer said workers are on call 24 hours a day to unclog the pumps, and they are notified of clogs by alarms at the pump stations. He said the problem is worse in newer areas of Greater Waco, such as the residential areas around Hewitt and McGregor.
Officials representing the wipes industry say they have worked with sewer industry leaders to do field studies of clogs.
“It’s nonflushables that are really the root cause of the problem,” said Phil Pitt, spokesman for the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. “We’re working hard with the wastewater industry to solve the problem.”
Industry leaders are promoting an international label to warn consumers not to flush products not designed for sewer systems. In addition, the group has started a pilot program in Maine to educate the public about the problem.
Meanwhile, Pitt said his industry has improved its standards used to determine whether a product can be labeled as flushable. Wipes are subjected to an eight-part test that includes placing them in a “slosh box” and shaking the box until the wipes disintegrate.
But some in the sewer industry question whether those tests adequately simulate the journey of a wipe into a typical public sewer.
An unscientific tabletop test by the Tribune-Herald showed a marked difference between a flushable wipe and toilet paper.
A piece of economy toilet paper was placed in one container with about a quart of water, while a flushable wipe was placed in another. After 10 minutes, the toilet paper disintegrated upon touch, while the wipe could be rolled up and tied in a knot.
Smalley, the wastewater association president, said he’s not pinning the blame for clogs solely on disposable wipes. He said the problem is growing because people are increasingly using disposable hygiene and cleaning products, and some may not realize what havoc they can wreak on sewer systems.
“We’re becoming a more disposable society,” he said. “It’s easier to throw things away than have to clean something.”