Local utility districts have been warning for some time of issues with so-called "flushable" wet wipes. Despite what the labels on many packages say, they are much too durable to be flushed. If sent down the loo, they damage pipes, pumps and entire sewer systems.
“They don't break down,” said Ethan Maiefski, the maintenance and operations director for the Northshore Utility district, north of Seattle. “Anything that doesn't break up like toilet paper and sticks together — it just really wreaks havoc in our system, especially in our pumps.”
COVID-19 MAKES A BAD SITUATION WORSE
In late February, Maiefski and his colleagues saw the writing on the wall. Amid the start of the coronavirus outbreak, wet wipes were flying off the shelves at the same time as people were facing shortages of toilet paper. The district wanted to amplify an important message that already had been part of public information campaigns in recent years.
They rented four additional roadside signs and used the two they own to post the announcement all around the Northshore Utility District. In bright orange lettering, lit up along the side of roads around Lake Forest Park, Bothell, Kenmore and Kirkland it read, "do not flush wet wipes."
“A lot of people were surprised that the message had to be given," Maiefski said. "And the other half of the people were surprised that you couldn't flush wipes.”
Even when they’re labeled “flushable,” wipes should go in the trash, because just a few can start a swirling clog inside the 8-inch pipes that make up most sewer systems.
A PIÑATA IN YOUR PIPES
“And then that's slowly or rapidly can become kind of like a paper mâché piñata. I mean, one just collects and then catches another and another,” he said. “And it doesn't take very long for there to become a big mass of wipes that creates the real big issue.”
He says in Northshore, they’ve removed about six clogs from wipes since late February — which they detected early through a stepped-up manhole inspection program. That’s a higher rate of clogging than they would normally see, but they have not been overwhelmed like in some parts of the state.
Maiefski thinks their roadside messaging helped reduce the rate of clogging, by reminding local residents what not to do.
Despite that success, he says they recently had to take the road signs down. Several of the cities where the utility placed them were asking for permits after the messages were up for more than two months. And the two signs that the utility district owns were needed elsewhere.
He hopes this won’t lead to renewed problems. Maiefski says people should remember this doesn’t only affect the larger public system. It also can hit them and their pocketbooks at home.
“It's very expensive," he said. “These issues can happen in the side sewer, which is the customer's responsibility to maintain.”