Disposable hand wipes clog Bay Area sewer treatment plants

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ByEric Thomas KGO logo
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Disposable hand wipes clog Bay Area sewer treatment plants
ABC7 News uncovers the messy truth about disposable hand wipes and the big problem they are causing in the Bay Area.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There is something clogging the nation's sewers and it is probably in your home. According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, moist wipes are responsible for more than a third of the debris choking U.S. treatment plants.

Store shelves are packed with disposable wipes these days. There are new products to make your life cleaner, wipes to use around the house, to clean your baby, your face, even your rear end.

Some wipes are made to be flushed down the toilet, but most are not, and they are creating a huge mess in sewage plants.

George Engle is superintendent of San Francisco's largest sewage treatment plant. "The question is always, 'How many wipes do you get?'" says Engle pointing to dumpster half full of disposable wipes. "This will get changed out sometimes in 20 minutes."

Engle reminds people moist wipes marketed as disposable are not flushable. When they do get flushed, they end up in sewage plants, contributing to a global plumbing problem.

"As you can see, these wipes have not broken down by the time they come to a plant, so now we have to treat them as trash," says Engle.

Wipes aren't just clogging sewage systems in San Francisco, but all over the Bay Area and you're paying the bill. In San Jose, officials say wipes stuck in the sewage system cost ratepayers up to $1 million a year and that's just one city. Workers at the East Bay Municipal Utility District Oakland us showed why.

"Anything that people flush comes here," says Jeff Biehl of EBMUD.

Debris that doesn't get sorted out by huge machines ends up stuck in them. Workers have to shut down the system and clean it out the equipment by hand. Most of what they pull out is disposable wipes.

Biehl says, "It is not readily degradable like normal toilet paper is. They are a lot thicker and they tend to be a little more abrasive on the system."

When those wipes get caught in pipes and sewers, there is a back-up.

Sanitation workers in London discovered a massive blockage created when wipes mixed with grease, grime, hair, and garbage. Insiders call this kind of clog a "fatberg," or a "turkey".

Closer to home, workers in Orange County needed a crane to remove a massive blockage. Most "turkeys" aren't this huge, but they can still cause big problems.

"If they bust loose, we have the same problem. They tend to plug up some of the downstream areas, that weren't designed to get rid of the material," says Biehl.

Pictures from East Bay MUD, taken a couple years ago, show what is left after workers melted the grease from a turkey. It was mostly wipes.

"We can come across a big turkey almost once a week," says Biehl.

Dave Rousse is with the industry group representing the companies that make non-fabric wipes. His group's research shows paper towels and feminine hygiene products make up the bulk of the debris removed from sewers. Still, he admits baby wipes, household wipes and some wipes labeled "flushable" make up still make up 40 percent of what the sewer operators pulled during the screening process.

"The problem is with the wipes which were never designed to be flushed, never intended to be flushed, but are being flushed and we acknowledge that's a problem," says Rousse.

For that reason, Brand says his group is encouraging manufacturers of disposable wipes to adopt a "Do Not Flush" logo.

People downstream of those wipes say there is a simpler solution, think before you flush.

"Poo, pee, and paper, toilet paper, down the drain," says Engle, "That should be the only thing you putting down there."

It is simple advice to keep anyone else from having to clean up your mess.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel