The Unflushables: Little things cause big problems for the city
By Samantha Lyles
Most of us have, at some point, flushed an inappropriate item down the toilet, inspired by necessity or modesty or childhood mischief.
But flushing certain items – like the pandemic staples of surgical masks and cleaning wipes – can damage home plumbing and cripple public sanitary sewer systems.
City of Darlington utilities director Freddie Kinsaul spoke with the News & Press about this problem, which his department was dealing with again last week.
“We have a pump at a lift station down right now that we’re going to have to work on today (June 8),” Kinsaul said. “We’re constantly seeing clogs. People flush everything from a washcloth to a towel, and we are always having to clear out non-flushable material.”
Despite many bathroom wipes, baby wipes and disinfecting wipes being labeled as “flushable,” online plumbing forums are full of professionals who say that word is misleading. While the wipes may appear to flush away without a problem, the real trouble begins once the wipes exit the toilet and enter septic system piping. The wipes tend to cling together, forming massive lumpy clogs that jam up sewage lift station pumping mechanisms.
“All the disinfecting wipes are non-biodegradable, and even most of the flushable wipes are not going to degrade for a long time. They’re flushable, but they’re not pumpable,” said Kinsaul.
Add surgical masks to the mix and the blockages only get stronger. Most surgical masks (and many cleaning wipes) use non-woven fiber, made by melting polymers and spraying or pressing them into fabric-like sheets. The end product is great for filtering air, but highly unsuitable for the septic system.
When polymer masks and wipes flow into engine-heated pumps they can melt and fuse together, forming intractable masses. Kinsaul said he’s seen some larger cities report mask/wipe clogs the size of beachballs.
In Hartsville, communications director Lauren Baker says the city tried to get ahead of the flushables problem in March by advising municipal water/sewer customers not to flush their bathroom wipes – a big ask amid toilet paper shortages. While that early warning may have helped, Hartsville is still dealing with line blockages where flushed materials team up with another sewer saboteur: cooking grease.
“That causes huge backups for us,” Baker says. “If people have cooking grease, we’re asking them to please set it aside and let it solidify, then throw it out in the garbage. Please do not send it down the drain.”
When a sewer station pump chokes on a terrible clog, the job of clearing it could be a full day’s work for several employees and a Vactor truck. And if the clog is bad enough that it burns out the pump motor, replacing that component could cost up to $10,000.
The solution is simple, but will require cooperation and neighborly consideration from all of us. Perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism about product labeling would help, too.
“This stuff is not going to biodegrade, and somewhere along the line it’s going to get hung up and cause a problem. Treat these items like you would a diaper – put them in a bag and dispose of them with your household trash,” Kinsaul said. “Nothing should go in the toilet except bodily waste and toilet paper.”