TACOMA, Wash. - Flushable wipes aren’t flushable.
That’s the message the managers of municipal wastewater plants would like the public to get.
The items fished out of Tacoma’s wastewater system over the decades are almost legendary: diamond rings, dentures, coveralls from an ornery jail inmate.
But it’s those so-called flushable wipes that are causing headaches in the sewer biz and siphoning money from ratepayers as they make extra work for city crews and clog home plumbing.
TO FLUSH OR NOT?
Some 10 billion gallons of wastewater flow through Tacoma’s sewers each year. Along with it are nearly 3,000 tons of debris never meant to be flushed down a toilet.
“Who flushes a spoon?” asks Hugh Messer as he looks at a board displaying everything from antique bottles to a plastic alligator. Messer is a manager in Tacoma’s environmental services division.
Chief among contraband debris are the so-called flushable wipes.
There’s a schism between manufacturers who sell the wipes and those who have to deal with them downstream.
Walmart sells Parent’s Choice flushable wipes. The fine print should give any homeowner pause. It advises to flush only one at a time and that they should not be used with basement pump systems.
“These wipes are suitable for well-maintained sewers and septics,” the package states.
Not really, Messer said.
“Our biggest problem is wipes,” he said Thursday at the city’s large wastewater treatment plant next to the Puyallup River on Tacoma’s Tideflats.
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“They say it’s OK to flush,” Messer said of various brands. “It’s not OK to flush.”
Claims that the wipes are biodegradable are just clever marketing, Messer said.
It takes only hours for a flush to reach the wastewater plant. While that’s enough time for toilet paper to break down it’s not nearly enough time for wipes to biodegrade.
“In the short time it takes to get from your home to here, it’s still a plugging problem,” Messer said.
Sewer pumps around the city have to be cleaned weekly because of the high volume of wipes and other material, Messer said.
Messer estimated the city spends in the excess of $100,000 annually to deal with the problem.
All of the water passing into the plant is run through rag rakes — steel bars with ¼-inch openings. They slowly pull debris out of the water and deposit it in bins.
Eventually, it’s trucked to a landfill.
On Thursday, a slow-moving stream of what looked like dirty paper towels was oozing out of the machinery. Some items were recognizable — food wrappers, a latex prophylactic, a cigarette lighter.
The bulk of the debris were flushable wipes.
MORE THAN WIPES
Wipes aren’t the only bathroom products that some of the city’s 68,000 sewer customers flush.
Richard Hart, a plumber and co-owner of Harts Services, a Tacoma plumbing company, sends his crews to about 20 clogged sewer lines a day.
While most calls are due to failing old pipes, a good 20 percent are for what he calls misuse.
“Usually they have a flat sewer line, so it’s not pitched a whole lot, and they’re using flushable wipes and they aren’t moving,” Hart said.
One of Hart’s customers, a commercial mall, had a flushable wipe problem so large that it plugged 200 feet of sewer line.
He has a top five list of plumbing problem makers:
1. Flushable wipes — Whether made for babies or adults, dispose of them in the trash, not in the toilet, Hart said.
2. Feminine hygiene products — The second-most common flushed item to cause sewer problems, according to Hart.
3. Dental floss — The fishing line of the sewer world is not biodegradable, and it leads to snags and clogs.
4. Cotton swabs — One or more of these can get crossways in a plumbing joint which can lead to a log jam.
5. Cotton balls — They do not dissolve in plumbing systems and can lead to blockages.
BEWARE THE FOG
Fats, oil, grease — called FOG by wastewater workers — is another headache for both homeowners and municipalities.
In 2017, a “fatberg” as large as 19 African elephants was found in London’s sewer system.
Restaurants are required by law to install grease traps. But homes aren’t equipped with them. So, it’s up to individuals to pour off cooking grease into a container and dispose of it in the garbage.
Those who pour it down the sink are inevitably creating a clog somewhere in the sewer system. Possibly, theirs.
Hart, who has been in the business for 19 years, recalled one customer who religiously cooked herself two eggs and two strips of bacon every morning. Then, she would pour the grease and egg shells down her garbage disposal.
She’d been conducting this morning ritual for 15 years until one day when her kitchen sink clogged up. Hart used a water jet cleaner on the pipe.
“We filled up six, 5-gallon buckets of eggs shells and grease,” he said.
The customer, he said, had never been told not to pour grease into a home’s sewer system.
WHO TO CALL
If your sewer line is made of vintage clay pipes or if tree roots are slowly filling it, it’s just a matter of time before you’ll need Hart’s or some other plumber’s services, he said.
“It may not be today, but eventually,” Hart said.
The problem is usually first noticed in a basement — the lowest living space in a house.
“I’ve actually seen a rowboat in a basement, floating. In sewage,” Hart said.
In the case of a backed up sewer, the first call, Messer said, should be to your city’s hotline (see box.) In Tacoma’s case, a crew will be dispatched hopefully within an hour to check if the problem is the city’s or the homeowner’s.
If the problem is yours, the fix can be pricey.
Options can range from a water jet-powered cleaning ($800) to a pipe liner ($6,000 to $10,000) to a completely new side sewer ($8,000 to $20,000).
Sewer backup hotlines
Pierce County: 253-798-7000